Jacob Rees-Mogg claims UK government 'downplayed' risks of AstraZeneca COVID vaccine

The Tory MP suggested the government had minimized the risks to help with the rollout.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2024/02/06: Sir Jacob Rees Mogg speaks at the launch of the 'Popular Conservativism' movement in London. PopCon, a new Conservative grouping in Britain and a fringe movement within the Conservative Party, aims to restore democratic accountability and champion popular conservative policies. (Photo by Tejas Sandhu/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Jacob Rees Mogg made the claims on his GB News show. (Getty)

Jacob Rees-Mogg has claimed the government “downplayed” risks of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine during the pandemic after it was announced the jab was being withdrawn from the worldwide market.

On Wednesday, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca confirmed the AZ vaccine developed by Oxford scientists during the pandemic would no longer be distributed, citing “a decline in demand”.

The firm is being sued in a class action lawsuit amid allegations its vaccine caused fatalities and serious injury in dozens of instances. According to media reports, the drugmaker has previously admitted in court documents that the vaccine causes side-effects such as blood clots and low blood platelet counts.

On Thursday, Tory MP Rees-Mogg told his GB News show viewers that Boris Johnson's government had deliberately minimised the vaccine’s risks.

“The vaccine was, and remains for the overwhelming majority of the population, safe," he said. “Yet we've always known that all medical interventions carry some form of risk. We know it now and we knew it then and these were downplayed. So regardless of how rigorous the safety regulations were, the vaccine was new and lacked long term data.

“Whilst the rollout was, on the whole, successful, we now know that they were not as effective as we first hoped. And although the side effects were rare, they were real.”

AYLESBURY, ENGLAND - JANUARY 03: Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to a vaccination hub in the Guttman Centre at Stoke Mandeville Stadium as the booster vaccination programme continues, on January 3, 2022 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Around 132 million coronavirus jabs were given last year amid the largest vaccine campaign in British history. The emergence of the Omicron variant triggered an acceleration of the rollout over the festive season, and more than 1.6 million people received their booster dose in the final week of 2021.  (Photo by Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Former prime minister Boris Johnson visits a vaccination hub at Stoke Mandeville Stadium. (Getty)

Rees-Mogg supported the rollout of the jab, saying it saved many lives and allowed the lockdown to end.

However, he claimed the government partially coerced people to take the vaccine by threatening to remove freedoms.

Rees-Mogg, who attended cabinet meetings at the time as leader of the House of Commons, added: “A well-intentioned government was using an element of coercion to increase vaccine take-up and, therefore, the second order effects of a lack of transparency have been damaging to confidence and have encouraged some of the conspiracy theories.

“So while over egging the pudding may solve a problem in the short term, it can create more in the long term.”

Rees-Mogg suggested that a major problem was that the nature of the rollout had encouraged conspiracy theories, which could cause the public to lose trust in the government. He said: “And this could have very serious consequences if, for example, a contagion more serious, more deadly than COVID-19 were to hit these shores, people would be less likely to listen to what the governments say.”

He urged authorities to learn from the rollout of vaccines and said in the future “individuals should be given the facts, the risks as well as the good information to allow them to make their own choices.’

The AstraZeneca vaccine was widely lauded in December 2020 when it was approved for use in the UK. Then health secretary Matt Hancock described it as "great British success story" while Johnson labelled it a "triumph for British science".

The AZ vaccine was first administered to 82-year-old Brian Pinker on 4 January 2021 being being distributed widely the the UK and overseas over the coming weeks and months.

OXFORD, ENGLAND - JANUARY 04 82-year-old Brian Pinker receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford as the NHS increases its vaccination programme with 530,000 doses of the newly approved jab available for rollout across the UK on January 4, 2021 in Oxford, England.  (Photo by Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Brian Pinker gets his jab. (Getty)

In mid-March 2021, more than a dozen European countries, including Germany and France, paused the use of the vaccine following reports of blood coagulation disorders in recipients. However, they resumed the roll-out days later after EU and British regulators shored up confidence in the shot, saying its benefits outweigh the risks.

The European Medicines Agency's (EMA) "clear" conclusion following an investigation into 30 cases of unusual blood disorders was that the vaccine's benefits in protecting people from coronavirus-related death or hospitalisation outweighed the possible risks, though it said a link between blood clots in the brain and the shot could not be definitively ruled out.

AstraZeneca acknowledged the issue in a statement on 14 March, but insisted that their evidence showed "no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or thrombocytopenia".

On 16 March 2021, the UK's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty acknowledged there were risks after the blood clot reports, but insisted the benefits outweighed the risks. He told a COVID press conference there were "real issues that we always have to think about with all drugs", but they were "so much smaller than the benefits of getting the vaccine".

"The risk-benefit is really strongly in favour of getting vaccinated," he added.

By 17 March, 25 million people in the UK had received their first vaccine dose, with approximately 12 million adults having been given the AZ vaccine.

On 7 April 2021, the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued updated information on the “possible risk of extremely rare and unlikely to occur specific types of blood clots” following vaccination with the AstraZeneca jab.

The regulator said the benefits of vaccination “continue to outweigh any risks” but advised “careful consideration be given to people who are at higher risk of specific types of blood clots because of their medical condition”.

The UK regulator had found a total of 30 cases of blood clot events after AZ vaccine use. The EU drug regulator also found a link between the vaccine and blood clots and said it was up to countries to decide how to handle AstraZeneca distribution.

A health worker injects a dose of the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccine centre set up at City Hall in Hull, northeast England on May 7, 2021. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
A vaccination centre in May 2021. (Getty)

Oxford then paused a vaccine study in children and advised alternative vaccines to be given to the under-30s.

Data subsequently showed that people were more likely to get blood clots if they contracted COVID compared to taking the AZ vaccine. Many countries had, by then, restricted the AZ vaccine to older populations.

According to analysis by Professor Christina Pagel of research published in the British Medical Journal in 2023, COVID was 190 times more likely to give people blood clots in veins than the AZ vaccine and 1.4 times more likely for brain clots.

It is widely accepted that the AZ vaccine - and other COVID jabs - saved millions of lives during the devastating pandemic. In the first year, vaccinations were estimated to have prevented 19.8 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, according to an Imperial College study.

Further analysis by Airfinity showed the AZ and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines saved more 12 million lives in the first year of use.

Professor Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics, University of Bristol, said following AstraZeneca's decision to remove its vaccine from the market: “This vaccine saved very large numbers of lives in many countries around the world particularly in 2021 and 2022, both because it was developed and tested so rapidly and because AZ made it available at very low cost so that it could be used in many of the poorer countries in the world.”

Prof Jonathan Ball, Deputy Director of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Molecular Virology, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), said: "We seem to forget how desperate the global population were for an effective COVID-19 vaccine, and the AZ vaccine saved millions of lives. However, there were relatively early indications that the vaccine was associated with very rare, but very serious complications, and eventually other vaccines, particularly those capable of giving protection against newly emerging variants of concern have come to the fore.

“With almost everything we do there is a harm-benefit assessment that we have to make, and at the peak of the pandemic the AZ vaccine brought far more benefit than harm – that would still be the case, but now more effective and safer avenues are available.”