Halting AstraZeneca vaccine could do more harm than good, COVID expert warns

·5-min read
A member of NHS staff prepares the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. The use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been suspended in the Republic of Ireland following reports of blood clotting events in adults in Norway. (Photo by Dinendra Haria / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A member of NHS staff prepares the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. (PA)

A coronavirus expert has warned the decision taken by numerous European countries to suspend the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could do more harm than good.

Germany, Italy and France have joined the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands as the latest countries to suspend use of the vaccine following concerns over its side effects.

There have been reports of about 30 cases in Europe of people developing blood clots after having the vaccine. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is investigating.

However, both the World Health Organization and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said there is no indication the vaccine causes clots. The EMA has also said it is safe.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from the University of Cambridge, urged caution over the decision to pause the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout in some countries, saying it could be doing "more harm than good".

He told the BBC: “I’ve looked at the AstraZeneca reports and they’ve said that 17 million jabs across the EU and the UK (had been administered) and they’ve had about 15 cases of deep vein thrombosis and 22 cases of pulmonary embolism reported.

“Doing some sums, deep vein thrombosis happens to one in 1,000 people per year of all ages.

“So, out of those 17 million jabs, we would expect at least 17,000 of those people to get a deep vein thrombosis some time in the year.

“So that means that there will have been – and you can pretty well guarantee it – 350 people who have had an AstraZeneca jab then had a deep vein thrombosis in the week following that.”

Watch: AstraZeneca finds no increased blood clot risk

'No signal of a problem'

Boris Johnson has said the UK’s medicines regulator sees “no reason to discontinue” using the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Prime Minister said the COVID-19 jab was safe and stressed that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) was one of the “toughest and most experienced” in the world.

The director of the vaccine group that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus jab has also insisted it is not linked to blood clots.

On Monday, Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford vaccine group that developed the jab, said no link had been found between it and blood clots.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “A lot of stuff happens to people all the time in normal times and, in the case of blood clots here in the UK, we see about 3,000 cases of blood clots happening every month.

“So, when you then put a vaccination campaign on top of that, clearly those blood clots still happen and you’ve got to then try and separate out whether, when they occur, they are at all related to the vaccine or not.”

Prof Pollard said more than 11 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had now been given in the UK and that the MHRA had said “very clearly that they’re not seeing any increase in the number of cases of blood clots” over what they would see normally.

He said: “I think at this moment we’ve got the most data from the UK, which looks very reassuring, but of course it’s absolutely right that there’s careful monitoring of safety and this gets looked into.”

Watch: Should I be concerned about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine?

He added: “It’s absolutely critical that we don’t have a problem of not vaccinating people and have the balance of a huge risk – a known risk of COVID – against what appears so far from the data that we’ve got from the regulators – no signal of a problem.

“If we have no vaccination and we come out of lockdown in this country, we will expect tens of thousands of more deaths to occur during this year.”

'Precaution'

Germany said it was suspending its use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as a “precaution”. It has received slightly more than three million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and only used 1.35 million doses so far.

French president Emmanuel Macron said France was also suspending use of the vaccine as a precaution and Italy’s medicines regulator has also announced a temporary ban.

The Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Bulgaria, Iceland and Thailand have all temporarily suspended their use of the jab.

The Republic’s health minister Stephen Donnelly said the country's decision was “based on new information from Norway”, where there have been reports of serious clotting in adults that has left four people in hospital.

The EMA reported that one person in Austria was diagnosed with blood clots and died 10 days after vaccination, but stressed that there is “currently no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions”.

Another person was admitted to hospital in Austria with pulmonary embolism (blockage in arteries in the lungs) after being vaccinated, while one death involving a blood clot was reported in Denmark.

A 50-year-old man is also thought to have died in Italy from deep vein thrombosis, and there has been an unconfirmed report of another death there.

A woman receives an injection of the the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at Elland Road vaccine centre in Leeds, as a study shows that people from Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups living in deprived communities are more likely to be hesitant about the coronavirus vaccine than those in more affluent areas. Picture date: Friday March 12, 2021.
A woman receives an injection of the the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at Elland Road vaccine centre in Leeds. (PA)

The country has followed Austria, Estonia, Latvia, Luxembourg and Lithuania in banning jabs from one particular batch of 1 million AstraZeneca vaccines, which was sent to 17 countries, after reports of a death.

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said that if there were any concerns about the jab, then the public would be informed “straight away”.

He said that the EMA, the MHRA, the WHO and AstraZeneca have “all said this vaccine is safe”.

“At the moment, the message is absolutely clear – go and get your vaccine when offered.

“I spent all yesterday in our practice vaccinating with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – I would not be immunising my own patients unless I felt it was safe.”

Watch: Do coronavirus vaccines affect fertility?

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