Why The West's 'First World Problems' Over AstraZeneca Are A Deadly Risk For The Planet's Poorest

New research from Oxford University deserves publicity in Europe and beyond.

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“Vaccine nationalism” is one of those practices that every country disowns, but some secretly indulge. And when it comes to their handling of the pandemic more broadly, politicians are often happy to comment on other countries’ failures while bristling at any outsider verdict on their own.

We had a flavour of that over the past 24 hours after Canada’s Justin Trudeau blurted out that the UK was ahead of the world on vaccinations “yet they maintain very strong restrictions and are facing a very serious third wave”. It was a (characteristically) hamfisted attempt to justify his own continued lockdown and sparked a wave of British indignation.

There was a gentle rebuff on Thursday from Boris Johnson’s spokesperson, who said “I don’t have a specific response for Justin Trudeau, but I think the case data speaks for itself with this”. He then proceeded to say that UK case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths had all fallen and “that’s a tribute to our vaccine roll out and the work of the British public and our NHS”.

The only problem with that response is that, well, the PM himself this week made plain that vaccination wasn’t the real driver of those falling numbers. And while Trudeau’s claim about a “serious” third wave certainly baffled scientists here, Johnson and Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance have all warned there will be a third wave of some kind, it’s just unclear when or how big it will be.

Although the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is not a “British” vaccine as such, there was also some early government defensiveness on its behalf as other countries raised concerns about possible links to blood clots. Now that our own regulator has paused the jab for under-30s, there is unsurprisingly some European muttering of “we told you so”.

Of course, it all comes down to a balance of risks, and the need to make informed assessments of that risk. And a brand new Oxford study concluded that the risk of cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT) is – wait for it – around eight to 10 times higher after catching the virus than getting vaccinated.

Based on data from more than 500,000 Covid-19 patients, the experts calculated the occurrence of CVT was 39 in a million people. Among those who had a vaccine made by AstraZeneca, the occurrence was about five in a million after the first dose. Intriguingly, they found for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines the occurrence of CVT was around four in a million. That’s not much different from AZ, yet neither has the same PR problem.

Crucially, Professor Paul Harrison, who led the study, said that the risk was still higher “even for those under 30”. The much less diplomatic Professor John Bell put it bluntly: “If you don’t get a vaccine you’re going to get Covid. And if you get Covid you’ll have a very, very much higher risk of getting a bad clotting problem.”

The new research paper has come too late for some countries. On Wednesday, Denmark had actually become the first European country to completely halt its AstraZeneca rollout, to all age groups. It admitted “the risk in absolute terms is slight” but went ahead with the ban anyway.

Yet today, as Europe passed the awful milestone of a million deaths (with France set to pass 100,000 tonight), there was a genuinely jaw-dropping revelation about Denmark. The WHO’s Europe chief Hans Kluge said he’d been told by Soren Brostrom, director general of the Danish Health Authority, that “the ministry of foreign affairs of Denmark is ready to, or looking already into options, for sharing AstraZeneca vaccines with poorer countries.”

Yes, you read that right: they’re saying this vaccine is not safe enough for Danes, but it is for the developing world. That betrays a shocking assumption about the comparative value placed on lives in richer and poorer states. But the truly shocking factor is the failure to properly weigh the risks. As the Oxford study shows, the chances of dying from Covid are much higher than of dying from a vaccine – even among the young.

There is also a real danger that our old friend “an abundance of caution” is not the benign concept it seems, and is in fact utterly deadly. Actions like Denmark’s can only undermine confidence in the AstraZeneca jab, the only not-for-profit vaccine, in the very countries that depend on it most. Gordon Brown and others urged global action today, as 90% of people in poor countries already face a 2021 without any vaccines at all.

Being able to reject a vaccine on grounds of the “slight” risk it poses, simply because you have plentiful alternative stocks (as Denmark claims), brings a whole new tawdriness to that phrase “First World problems”. The risk is a continued spread that ends up becoming a global problem. Let’s hope that the reassuring findings of the new Oxford research can drown out the messages that somehow the AstraZeneca jab is “unsafe”.


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