The AstraZeneca vaccine's unlucky few

·9-min read
Wedding photo of Lisa Shaw and Gareth Eve
Wedding photo of Lisa Shaw and Gareth Eve

“I would just like them to hold their hand up and say, ‘we’re very much aware that this has happened and we’re going to do something about it’. And I’d like them to do that without taking it away in the next breath.

“In no other circumstances where so many people have lost their lives would that happen. They wouldn’t say 72 people sadly died in the Grenfell tower fire, but hundreds of people didn’t. We don’t forget those who were wounded in conflict or those who did not come home.”

These are the words of Gareth Eve, husband of Lisa Shaw, the 44 year-old BBC Radio Newcastle presenter who died in May of a rare brain hemorrhage, confirmed by a coroner in August to have been caused by rare complications from the Oxford AstraZeneca jab which scientists believe they discovered the trigger for last week.

His is a tough story to hear, but it is made worse by being so hard for him to tell publicly.

Gareth and hundreds of others in the UK who have lost loved ones, or seen their lives irrevocably changed by blood clots and other vaccine-related injuries, find themselves in a terrible position as the real stories behind the statistics.

Not only are they being forced to battle for the lives, memories or continued care of their partners or children but – although it could not be further from the truth – they know that doing so risks them being branded as anti-vaxxers or even unpatriotic.

“Lisa rolled her sleeve up for the country and said, ‘Right, well, I’m going to get my jab, because that’s what we are being told is the right thing to do’,” says Gareth, who had his second vaccination after his wife’s death, and is now bringing up the couple’s six-year-old son Zach alone. “She did it, like all the others, because it would mean that our little bit of the world, our family and community was better protected. And yet nobody even recognises them”.

Selfie photo of Lisa Shaw and Gareth Eve
Selfie photo of Lisa Shaw and Gareth Eve

The number of people who have life-changing adverse reactions to vaccines for Covid-19 is a tiny proportion of the many millions of vaccines given, but is mounting in absolute numbers. (the exact percentage is not known)

Up to November 17, the MHRA had received Yellow Card reports of 426 cases of major thromboembolic events (blood clots) with concurrent thrombocytopenia (low platelet counts) in the UK following vaccination with AstraZeneca. The overall case fatality rate was 17 per cent with 73 deaths. There have been, in addition, a small number of other rare adverse reactions which have led to death or disablement – as there are with nearly all pharmaceuticals.

Sarah Moore, a partner with the London law firm Hausfeld, represents the families of 95 people impacted by such injuries, including Gareth Eve. Nine have suffered bereavement, while most of the others are caring for close relatives with life-changing injuries. “All have experienced, at first hand, a range of severe adverse health events following Covid-19 vaccination,” she says.

Not anti-vaxx, but campaigning for change

When Covid vaccines were first authorised for use in the UK, the Government indemnified the manufacturers and took on liability for any adverse reactions. It then added all of the jabs used – including the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine – to the Vaccine Damage Payments Scheme (VDPS).

“The UK has one of the most comprehensive immunisation programmes in the world, and sensible routine precautions such as these form a huge part of our global-leading standards in safety,” boasted the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, when announcing the move just ahead of the launch of the Covid vaccination campaign in December 2020.

“The VDPS is a safety net to help ease the burden on individuals who have, in extremely rare circumstances, experienced harm due to receiving a government-recommended vaccine,” added the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) at the time.

Moore and her clients are not anti-vaccination or suing the government, but campaigning for change: they say the VDPS is not a “safety net” worthy of the name.

Launched more than 40 years ago to build confidence in national vaccination programmes, it is now hopelessly out of date – and in danger of doing the exact opposite.

Paper-based and under-staffed, it has proven slow, bureaucratic and unresponsive. Claimants must show they are more than “60 per cent” disabled to make a successful claim as well as proving “causation”, which is notoriously difficult to prove. Worse, even for cases that are successful, the maximum total payout is just £120,000.

“While £120,000 is a substantial sum of money, it will provide limited security where an individual has been severely disabled and, particularly, where they may have dependents,” says Moore. “It is significantly lower than the awards that are achieved in personal injury claims involving similarly severe injuries.” Such awards can run to the millions.

Historically, the VDPS has received about 100 claims a year, but Covid vaccinations mean that number has dramatically increased.

“There are currently c.500 cases (as at November 2021) that require assessment, with this volume currently increasing per week by c.20 cases,” notes a recent government tender document for the running of the service. “It is estimated that in year one of the contract there will be c1500-1800 claims that will require assessment within the first year of the contract,” it adds.

'We feel like the unluckiest of lucky people'

Kate Scott, a 32-year-old mum of two boys, age four and one, is one of those claimants. She is struggling to keep the roof over the family’s head after her husband Jamie, 44, suffered a brain injury after receiving the Oxford Astrazeneca jab this spring.

“Jay got his text to go have his first AstraZeneca vaccination on 23 April 2021. He woke up with a headache on 3 May [10 days after the vaccination]. An hour later he vomited, and his speech was impaired, so an ambulance was called,” recalls Kate. “He was diagnosed with cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a bleed on the brain and thrombocytopenia.”

Jamie spent 124 days in hospital and was lucky to survive; his doctors thought he would need to live in a care home for the rest of his life. But, although he is now home with Kate and their boys, the brain injury he still lives with has changed his life.

“We feel like the luckiest unlucky people because, despite all of this, Jamie has made more of a recovery than any of the medical teams thought possible,” she says. “But our life is still dramatically impacted. He’s able to communicate with us and to outsiders, he looks like he’s very much almost back to normal. But for our family that’s not the case.”

Jamie can no longer work as a software engineer or even care for his children without supervision, for example.

“I solely have to be responsible for the boys as he can’t independently look after them at the moment, which is very difficult for him as well,” says Scott. “He’s amazing. His motivation is truly inspiring, and the doctors have used the term miracle. I feel sometimes when I get upset that I’m being ungrateful. I know that others have lost loved ones.”

Kate has had to stop working as a customer service coordinator for a children's charity to look after Jamie and the children full time. They are struggling financially and Kate worries they may have to sell the family home. She points out the £120,000 maximum payment from the VDPS scheme was worth £500,000 or more when the scheme was launched in 1979.

“That’s a lot more money and enough to pay off most people’s mortgages. It would mean Jay could just focus on getting better or one day, he could do a vocational job, perhaps, where there was less pressure on him. It would mean that what has already been traumatic for our children doesn’t get worse. That we don’t have to move house because of it.”

In the summer, Kate wrote to Boris Johnson to draw his attention to the holes in the Government’s vaccine safety net. Like others, she pointed out that other developed countries have more generous schemes.

The Prime Minister replied on August 11, promising that the Government would consider the case for reform. “I’m deeply sorry to read about Jamie’s condition and the immense consequences for you [and the boys],” he wrote.

“You have suffered a heartbreaking and frightening change but I would like to pay tribute to your strength in proposing changes which you think could improve the situation. You’re not a statistic, and must not be ignored. I am deeply touched by your story.”

Johnson went on to say he had asked the DHSC to consider the proposed reforms but, to date, there has been no announcement of change and not a single case has yet been settled via the government scheme. Indeed the DHSC has been directing victims like Gareth and Kate into the benefits system. Not surprisingly, real anger is building.

“They promised a safety net if things went wrong but you are made to feel like you’re saying something controversial or, you know, wrong by raising it”, says Gareth. “Lisa’s death has been confirmed at an inquest as being caused by a vaccine. It says here on her death certificate she died due to ‘complications of an AstraZeneca Covid Vaccination’. It doesn't get more black and white than that. That is what happened to her. Fact. For Lisa and all the others I’ve heard about, there is no grey area about it.”

A government spokesperson added: “More than 115 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the UK, saving countless lives and serious side effects are extremely rare.

“The Vaccine Damage Payments Scheme helps to ease the burden on individuals who have, in extremely rare circumstances, been severely disabled due to receiving a government-recommended vaccine.

“All vaccines being used in the UK have undergone robust clinical trials and have met strict standards of safety, effectiveness and quality set by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s (MHRA).”

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