‘Astra’nomical Problem Or ‘Temporary’ Setback?

Maybe it’s complacency or maybe it’s the number of safe (as far as we know) and effective alternatives, but markets seem largely unconcerned with proliferating suspensions of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine.

More than a dozen countries have halted (or partially halted) the shot after a handful of recipients developed blood clots. The suspensions are described as “precautionary,” which in this case is supposed to be a synonym for “temporary.”

So far, experts say there’s no evidence to support a causative relationship. AstraZeneca and the European Medicines Agency are analyzing “all the available data and clinical circumstances surrounding specific cases,” but the truth is, we’ll probably never know for sure.

“Investigators generally focus on estimating how often such medical problems would be expected to turn up by chance in the group of people in question,” The New York Times noted, before helpfully pointing out that “such investigations typically don’t hinge on definitively figuring out whether the vaccine was the cause of a death or a serious medical problem, because in most cases that cannot be conclusively determined.”

This is insult to injury for the Astra vaccine, which was dogged by efficacy questions pretty much from the start. It’s also salt in the wound for Europe, which is struggling with vaccine rollout. The company said there’s no evidence that the shot raises the risk of blood clotting, but as Bloomberg wrote, “the drama keeps Astra at the center of a political storm in Europe [where] various manufacturing issues mean Astra will only be able to deliver about 100 million doses to the EU in the first half of the year… about a third of the number originally planned.”

Earlier this month, Ursula von der Leyen lost her patience with the situation. “[We’re] tired of being the scapegoat,” she seethed, expressing frustration with the notion that The European Commission is responsible for slow vaccine distribution.

A poll of large European countries conducted by YouGov showed that only Britons viewed the Astra shot favorably relative to Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines.

“Europeans are substantially more likely to say they would refuse to take the AstraZeneca vaccine than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” YouGov said, in the color accompanying the survey, which was conducted prior to the halts. “In Germany, for instance, more than a quarter of Germans (27%) said they would refuse the AZ vaccine and wait for another. Just 12% say the same of Moderna, and only 6% of Pfizer.” One can only assume those numbers have become even more unfavorable for Astra’s shot in recent days.

So far, temporary bans have been issued by France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Denmark, Ireland, Thailand, the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Congo and Bulgaria. (When you lose Bulgaria…)

This is a lose-lose proposition for politicians. In the absence of a readily available alternative, halting vaccinations delays herd immunity and leaves people vulnerable, quite possibly for no good reason. It’s also highly likely that the very act of suspending vaccinations with Astra’s shot will increase the level of anxiety among those already predisposed to mistrusting vaccines. On the other hand, if you fail to act and there does turn out to be some causal link, then you could face a full-blown scandal.

In remarks to the AP, Dr. Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton in England, called the decision to suspend the Astra vaccine “baffling.” “Halting a vaccine rollout during a pandemic has consequences,” he said. “This results in delays in protecting people, and the potential for increased vaccine hesitancy, as a result of people who have seen the headlines and understandably become concerned.”

That’s true, but, again, if it turns out there’s something to this, not acting is politically perilous. But so are lockdowns.

“How many more weeks of euro lockdown does [this] mean in reality?” Rabobank’s Michael Every wondered on Tuesday. “What does it mean for the CDU in Germany, who just got smashed in the elections over the weekend?”


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5 thoughts on “‘Astra’nomical Problem Or ‘Temporary’ Setback?

  1. Good article in Medpagetoday. Statistically the vaccine may actually protect against clots.
    Echo chamber is everywhere and the effects are like a pebble in a pond

  2. Yet another Catch 22 for the world. It will be interesting to see how this plays out across the globe. I think the average knee jerk reaction will be downplaying the significance of negative results so as not to undermine confidence in vaccination programs.

  3. “What does it mean for the CDU in Germany, who just got smashed in the elections over the weekend?”

    First I’ve heard of this news.

  4. The politicians own this. The medical regulators including the EMA have stated repeatedly that the number cases of clots is, if anything, lower than would be expected given the tens of millions of doses that have already been administered. The sensible thing to do was to say something along the lines of, “We will be guided by science, the EMA are monitoring the situation, and we will respond to any concerns they have with utmost urgency.” Instead they have played politics with this, and added to a war of words and actions with AstraZeneca. The only loser of this war has been the vulnerable people of Europe.
    I assume tomorrow the suspension will be lifted (when the EMA gives its formal report), but the mud will have stuck.

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