What’s wrong with the AstraZeneca vaccine and should you be worried?

By Harriet Piercy

Published Mar 19, 2021 at 10:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

At the start of this week, a handful of European countries that include Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Norway and Ireland, decided to put all Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccinations on hold while Estonia and Austria had suspended vaccinations from particular batches of the vaccine. In return, this caused an understandable fuss from both sides of the giver-receiver table. What’s actually going on with the AstraZeneca vaccine and should you be worried about it?

A small number of people who received the vaccine have reported blood-clotting conditions, according to The Guardian, “These include pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis as well as rarer conditions such as thrombocytopenia, where people do not make enough platelets, and a disorder called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), which is a type of blood clot in the brain.”

Governments in the countries mentioned above have stated that they had acted out of “an abundance of caution” by pausing the vaccinations until further investigation had been made.

What was being investigated in the AstraZeneca vaccine?

Emer Cooke, the head of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), said on 17 March that there was no indication that the cases have been caused by the vaccination jab itself, and that the EMA remains “firmly convinced” the benefits of the jab outweigh the risks. She did add however that the cases “are a serious concern and need serious and detailed scientific evaluation.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) further backed the vaccine, and AstraZeneca has announced that 17 million people in the EU and UK have received the vaccine, with the number of cases of blood clots reported being “lower than the hundreds of cases that would be expected among the general population.”

Belgium’s health agency said on Monday 15 March that it would continue to use AstraZeneca, stating in The Brussels Times that stopping the vaccination process would be “irresponsible.” According to The Guardian, France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, has said he would get vaccinated “very quickly” with the shot when the EMA rules it safe, “to show my fellow citizens that the vaccine is the way out of this crisis and it can be taken in all security.” He added, “I think the opinion will be positive and we can restore a full confidence in this vaccine.”

The main issue is blood clotting, and which groups are more at risk than others is being looked into—as this might obviously provide a ‘selected’ dose per group, and therefore a way out of the trouble. The German federal ministry of health has however said that young people, especially young women, seem to be overrepresented in cases of cerebral sinus venous thrombosis (CVST) among those who have been vaccinated. This is a moment to mention that the contraceptive pill, which women have been taking for decades to avoid pregnancy, is high if not higher risk in suffering a blood clot.

Does the Oxford vaccine cause blood clots?

In talking to The Guardian, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia stated that “[CVST] is also more common in people under 50 years old than in people over 50 years old, and a little more common in women than in men.” Another important point Hunter made was that if there was a true rise in “unusual conditions among the vaccine recipients, that does not mean they are caused by vaccination, the rate could be inflated because people are looking harder for cases.”

When it comes to the UK, anonymous sources have told Sky News that one reason for the number of doses delivered varying over time is batches requiring further testing to ensure the highest safety standards are met in every case. Hunter commented on this as well, saying that while cases should be investigated, the UK is right not to put use of the jab on hold. “I think the UK has taken the approach that will ultimately lead to fewer deaths, I would not have argued for pausing vaccination given the tenuous nature of the evidence currently available.”

On Thursday, the EU’s drugs regulator deemed AstraZeneca’s vaccine “safe and effective.” The European agency said the shot’s benefits outweigh any risks but couldn’t rule out a definitive link to the side effects.

Why is vaccination delayed in the UK?

Vaccination sites in England have been ordered not to stop the jabs being given entirely, but only for the under 50 year olds during the whole of April. Unfortunately, this hesitancy relays as a massive and concrete delay within the general population’s safety, because it not only increases the risk of further mutations and the spread of misinformation, but for infections to rise, yet again.

Rumours are of course swirling that the UK may not get out of lockdown when promised, but AstraZeneca said in a statement that “Our UK domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption and there is no impact on our delivery schedule.”

By late spring, the first doses of Moderna, which is the third vaccine to have been approved in the UK, shall start arriving from labs. According to Reuters, “Moderna expects to begin deliveries to the UK in April, within the spring delivery window previously communicated. Moderna is on track to meet quarterly contractual commitments,” a spokesman for the US biotech company said.

To sum up, the vaccination of under 50 year olds within the UK is likely to be delayed. This is a difficult time, but we have done a year of waiting, and yes, none of us want to wait any longer—but all we can really do is trust science to get us all out of this. Hang tight.

And look on the bright side, new and improved COVID-19 vaccines, including ones that don’t require needles and can be stored at room temperature, may be ready as soon as this year, the WHO’s top scientist said. In development are inoculations that could be given as a nasal spray or taken orally. Globally, 10 shots have been proven effective since the pandemic began.

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