Far from subsiding, as it seemed to be doing last week, the European war over the AstraZeneca vaccine has intensified. Over the past few weeks, EU leaders have swung from accusing the company – and Britain – of hoarding the vaccine and failing to supply it to EU countries, to claiming that it is ineffective, back to accusing us of hoarding it again. But the decision by several European countries to suspend rollout of the vaccine over fears of blood clots is the most serious challenge yet.
This time, however, the blame cannot be laid at the door of the EU – the European Medicines Agency continues to declare the vaccine to be safe and has said that any negative side-effects are outweighed by the benefits. Individual European countries (and non-EU Norway and Iceland) have made the decision themselves.
The fears over blood clots have been largely dismissed in Britain – according to Professor Anthony Harden of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation there has been no higher incidence of the condition among people who have been vaccinated than among the general population (allowing for such things as age and health conditions).
However, Anders Tegnell, head of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, has suggested it isn’t so much fears of blood clots which have caused that country to suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine but another blood condition. His comments reported in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reveal the agency is more worried about a condition which causes bleeding – and which has been detected in ten to 20 cases across Europe, with a temporal link to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Should we be worried? Many millions have been vaccinated in Britain alone and only a handful of cases have come to light, which suggests that if there are any real risks, they must be tiny compared with the threat that Covid-19 poses to the population. Given that the EU has so far administered 6.9 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Tegnell’s figures suggest that the harmful side-effect he describes is not more prevalent than around three in every million vaccinations. By contrast, Sweden has so far suffered 1,300 deaths per million from Covid-19.
But if it does turn out there are potentially fatal side effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine in a small number of cases, that information must not be suppressed. Over the past few weeks there has been a great intolerance shown towards anyone who expresses concerns about vaccines, and social media sites have acted to delete anything which they feel contradicts scientific consensus.
This week’s war of words over AstraZeneca shows just how foolish it is to pretend there is a scientific consensus on the safety of vaccines, or indeed anything else. If we want people to have faith in vaccines – and Britons have shown great faith so far – it will be necessary to be open about any risks which emerge, however small those risks may be.
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