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HomeWorldMatters Of Communication: Handelsblatting The Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine

Matters Of Communication: Handelsblatting The Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine


The Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is fast becoming
a subject of notoriety. First, will States obtain it?
Second, will they use it? The first answer has generally
been affirmative, given the vaccine’s ease of storage and
relative cheapness. The second is becoming increasingly
difficult.

Orders have been made and supplies – some
of them anyway – furnished, but vials and batches are not
being used. Countries are either restricting or suspending
the jab. AstraZeneca finds itself mounting what can only be
a round-the-clock communications battle trying to dissuade
officials not to put the brakes on.

Various artillery
pieces have been marshalled against it. In late January,
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed disappointment
with the vaccine a mere few hours before the European
Medicines Agency (EMA) approved its use on all adults.
“The real problem on AstraZeneca is that it doesn’t work
the way we were expecting it to,” he told
press members. “We’re waiting for the EMA results, but
today everything points to thinking it is quasi-effective on
people older than 65, some say those 60 years or
older.”

Even before any rollout, the vaccine’s
name was already being blackened, if not smudged. The
EMA’s words
of approval
(“as there is reliable information on
safety in this population, EMA’s scientific experts
considered that the vaccine can be used in older adults”)
seemed lost in the noisy scepticism being promoted by such
outlets as the Handelsblatt. In late January this
year, the finance paper claimed
that the vaccine “apparently has an effectiveness of only
8% in the elderly”, an assertion drawn from an
“anonymous government source”. A follow-up story did not
allay any doubts, with the paper insisting
it had the words of an unnamed health ministry bureaucrat.
“Confusion is out of the question. According to data
available to us so far, effectiveness in people over 60 is
less than 10%.”

The falseness of the claim did
little to trouble the paper’s political correspondent,
Gregor Waschinski. “I understand that some would like to
see the story substantiated with actual data,” he tweeted.
“However, this is not an academic preprint but a sourced
piece of political reporting.” This reduction of
scientific accuracy to political, sloppy expediency prompted
Markus Lehmkuhl, a science communications academic based at
the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, to
despair
. “Precise scientific information” had been
attributed to one “unsuitable source, who, to make matters
worse, did not want to be quoted by
name.”

Recommendations from various countries
advocating not using AstraZeneca’s vaccine for the elderly
subsequently proliferated. STIKO, the German Standing
Committee on Vaccination, was quick in recommending against
using the vaccine for those aged 65 and over. The Committee
head, Thomas Mertens, tried to clear the air of confusion
induced by the Handelsblatt’s reporting. The
recommendation was “not about critique of the vaccine, but
of the lack of data,” he told the
BMJ. “When there is more and better data, STIKO
will change its recommendation.”

France followed.
“This recommendation will be re-examined in the light of
availability of additional data,” promised
France’s national health authority HAS. Sweden’s Public
Health Agency also revealed
it was waiting for data “from an ongoing and large US
clinical trial in Phase 3” that “will include a
sufficient number of older participants to be able to draw
more certain conclusions regarding the protective
effort.”

In South Africa, a more drastic step was
taken. Use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was totally
suspended, with fears about efficacy, notably against the
South African COVID-19 variant. The February 10 announcement
from the Health Minister Zweli Mkhize showed a tilting of
the government towards the Johnson & Johnson candidate.
“Given the outcome of the efficacy studies [the
government] will continue with the planned phase one
vaccination using the Johnson & Johnson vaccines instead
of the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

The latest round of
concerns centre on whether the vaccine, or certain batches
of it, have encouraged the forming of blood clots. Italy’s
medicines authority AIFA took what it called
a “precautionary” measure to ban the ABV2856 batch after
the deaths of two men in Sicily following inoculation. The
agency added that no link had yet been established between
the vaccine and subsequent “serious adverse events.”
Austria’s own decision to suspend use was directed at the
company’s ABV5300 batch after a woman died 10 days after
inoculation due to “severe blood coagulation problems”
(multiple thrombosis).

Batch ABV5300, delivered to 17
EU countries, compromises 1 million doses. Of those,
suspensions as precautionary approaches have
taken place
in several countries, including Estonia,
Lithuania, Latvia and Luxembourg.

Rumbles have also
been registered in Scandinavia after Denmark recorded the
death of a 60-year-old woman from a blood clot after
receiving a dose from the ABV5300 batch. A two-week
suspension of shots was imposed. “It is currently not
possible to conclude whether there is a link,” wrote
Health Minister Magnus Heunicke on Twitter. “We are acting
early, it needs to be thoroughly
investigated.”

Norway did not wish to be out of
step. “This is a cautionary decision,” chorused
the director of infection prevention and control at the
Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI). The duration of
the suspension was not clarified. “We … await
information to see if there is a link between the
vaccination and this case with a blood clot.” And just to
make the picture complete, Iceland joined the vaccine
suspension family.

On March 11, the EMA tried
to stem any prospect of panic. “There is currently no
indication that vaccination has caused these conditions,
which are not listed as side effects with this vaccine.”
It added that the benefits of the vaccine “continue to
outweigh its risks and the vaccine can continue to be
administered while investigation of cases of thromboembolic
events is ongoing.”

The UK’s Medicines and
Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) called
the measure
by Iceland, Denmark and Norway merely
“precautionary”. “It has not been confirmed that the
report of a blood clot was caused by the AstraZeneca
COVID-19 Vaccine. People should still go and get their
COVID-19 vaccine when asked to do so.”

Speaking for
the MHRA, Dr Phil Bryan stated
that, “Blood clots can occur naturally and are not
uncommon. More than 11 million doses of the COVID-19 Vaccine
AstraZeneca have now been administrated across the UK.”
The reported blood clot cases were “not greater than the
number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated
population.”

The medical wisdom on this remains
consistent: certain adverse events will happen;
comorbidities can play a distracting role. To quote
Dr Peter English, till recently Chair of the BMA Public
Health Medicine Committee, the introduction of a new vaccine
with “reports of adverse events such as this” was far
from “unusual”. On the contrary, it showed “that
adverse reaction monitoring systems are working” rather
than indicating a causal link between the reaction and the
vaccination.

A meaningful strategy against pandemic
suppression is not merely whether successful vaccines can be
made, let alone successfully delivered, but whether the
communications work. Unfortunately for the
Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the patchy reputations of
pharmaceutical giants, and the specific way reports on the
efficacy of the product have gotten traction, have damaged
it. The risks of being Handelsblatted are never far
away.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar
at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email:
bkampmark@gmail.com

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