Confidence is fading fast in Britain’s AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in the wake of regulators identifying last week a link between the shot and a very rare blood disorder. Europeans are refusing the inoculation in rising numbers, prompting more of Europe’s governments to consider buying Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and France have decided to restrict the vaccine to older adults, but they’re encountering rising public resistance to the injection. An opinion poll in Germany suggests more than 40% of Germans would decline the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The governor of the southern Italian region of Puglia, Michele Emiliano, told the La Repubblica newspaper last week that half of his residents are refusing the vaccination. “It will get worse, thanks to the confused way the European drug agency is communicating about the vaccine,” he said.
Skepticism about the vaccine also has spread to Africa. The African Union, which represents 55 countries, has abandoned plans to buy the Astra vaccine, which was developed by scientists at the University of Oxford, saying instead it will turn to Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot inoculation.
Johnson & Johnson vaccine
But now there are concerns following the decision Tuesday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to recommend “pausing” the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine so it can investigate reports of rare cases of blood clots. Officials say they are looking into six reported cases “of a rare and severe type of blood clot” in women aged 18 to 48 who received doses.
A total of 6.8 million doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in the U.S. The company says “no clear causal link” has been found between their vaccine and the clots.
Some African governments were already wary of the AstraZeneco immunization before the link to a blood clotting disorder was confirmed by European Union and British regulators, who have emphasized the potentially fatal side effect is “extremely rare,” with only 84 recorded cases out of 25 million vaccinations.
Nonetheless, African governments were disturbed last month when a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the Astra vaccine, which has been renamed Vaxzevria for marketing purposes, didn’t offer much protection against mild disease caused by a coronavirus variant that emerged in South Africa.
The vaccine’s efficacy rate was just 10 percent in preventing mild illness, according to the study, which didn’t address the bigger question of whether it protected patients against severe illness and hospitalization.
Countries across the Asian Pacific are also becoming reluctant to administer the Astra vaccine, which has been plagued with supply problems, or they are heavily restricting its use.
The Australian government has decided to restrict its use to those under the age of 50 and has had to abandon a pledge that everyone in the country would receive a first dose by October. Australian officials say they have doubled the country’s order of the Pfizer vaccine. Australia’s health minister, Brendan Murphy, called the policy change “highly precautionary.”
Officials in Hong Kong have decided to rely on other vaccines and to abandon previous orders. South Korea also is restricting its use of the Astra vaccine.
Scientists and public health experts are largely frustrated by the burgeoning boycott of a vaccine, though its benefits outweigh the risks. They point out there is a minuscule chance of a fatal blood clot. And they warn that if countries reject the vaccine or people decline an Astra jab, it will have an enormous impact on the global rate of vaccinations, giving the virus even more time and opportunity to mutate and throw up strains that are resident to the current crop of vaccines.
Because of the cheapness of the vaccine — it is being sold at production cost price by AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish firm — and the fact it can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — the Astra shot had been earmarked as the workhorse vaccine for the developing world and for price-conscious Europe.
AstraZeneca accounted for more than 40 percent of coronavirus vaccine orders signed last year by lower- and middle-income countries. And according to Airfinity, a London-based research firm, Astra’s shot accounted for almost a quarter of the total supply deals signed for 2021, Bloomberg has reported.
COVAX, a global initiative set up to channel vaccine to poorer countries, had been using Astra as its mainstay vaccine. Last week the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), which backs COVAX, denounced the “shocking imbalance” in global vaccination rates. The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that one in four people in rich countries had received a vaccine, but one in 500 people in poorer countries had received a dose.
COVAX already had been buffeted by trouble stemming largely from India’s recent decision to halt vaccines manufactured by its Serum Institute factory, which produces most of the AstraZeneca doses for the global initiative.