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Benefits of AstraZeneca outweigh risks, PAHO says

Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) officials yesterday maintained that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh the risks, after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said rare blood clots may be a side effect of the vaccine.

Dr. Sylvain Aldighieri, incident manager for COVID-19, recommended “strict follow-up” of all vaccines against COVID-19.

“Extensive massive vaccination campaigns, as are going on right now in the world, usually countries begin to make a list of side effects post-vaccination,” he said during a PAHO press briefing.

“It does not mean that necessarily those adverse events are related to the vaccine per se, but it is necessary to evaluate them. The surveillance system of adverse effects exists and there are effective controls.

“Now, the [World Health Organization] WHO is in constant contact with the EMA and other authorities in the world to obtain more information and more recent information updated regarding the safety of all vaccines against COVID-19, including the one manufactured by AstraZeneca.

“Today, the EMA has declared that they continue to evaluate the safety data available for the AstraZeneca vaccine in collaboration with WHO. EMA’s evaluation says that there have been 62 cases of rare coagulation disorders…and 62 of over 30 million doses administered with the available information to this point. Both the WHO and EMA consider that the benefits of COVID-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca vis-à-vis the morbidity and mortality risk placed by COVID-19, the benefits outweigh the risks and they recommend vaccinations to continue.

“In this context, it is recommended to do a strict follow-up of all vaccines against COVID-19 and that research and recording of all adverse side effects be maintained thoroughly.”

The EMA said 86 cases of clotting were reported in the European Union (EU) safety database from European countries. The UK is included.

Of them, there were 62 cases of clotting in the sinuses that drain blood from the brain and 24 cases in the abdomen.

Eighteen people died.

The EMA did not make any recommendations on who should receive the vaccine, maintaining that the decision is up to national authorities. The agency maintained that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks while urging those who receive the shot to pay attention to any symptoms afterward, like chest pain, swelling, and shortness of breath.

Yesterday, the UK said it will offer alternative vaccines for adults under 30, given that the blood clots appear more common in young adults.

The UK’s vaccine advisory committee said that by the end of March, some 79 people had suffered from blood clots after vaccination, 19 of whom died.

With AstraZeneca being the most used COVID-19 vaccine globally and the only option available in a number of countries, including The Bahamas, concerns are mounting that the latest findings could undermine the global effort to vaccinate as many people against COVID as possible. 

While some wealthier countries have been able to purchase enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate their entire populations, poorer countries have been struggling to secure doses.

Many are relying on the COVAX Facility, an effort to supply the globe with COVID vaccines, which is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF, the WHO, and PAHO.

The Bahamas received its first shipment of 33,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from COVAX last week. Combined with a previous donation of 20,000 doses of AstraZeneca from the Indian government, just over 53,000 doses are in the country.

Another 67,200 doses from COVAX are expected to arrive in The Bahamas by the end of May.

While Minister of Health Renward Wells said the government is seeking to secure more doses through a variety of avenues, as it stands, the total number of doses expected in The Bahamas in the coming months is enough to fully vaccinate roughly 60,000 people – less than one-fifth of the country’s total population.

PAHO Director Dr. Carissa F. Etienne yesterday criticized the inequitable distribution of vaccines globally.

“Vaccine productions for approved COVID-19 vaccines need to increase worldwide because of the fact that none of us will be safe until all are safe,” she said.

Etienne added, “Obtaining vaccine equity and distributing as many vaccines as possible to as many people as possible is our current goal.

“I think we need to find ways to share vaccines more equitably, whether it is through donations of surplus doses, whether it is through ramping up production or increased procurement or other avenues.

“What I do know is that current progress is far from reaching the coverage that is necessary to protect the most vulnerable groups – about 20 percent of the population – and to reduce the high mortality in our region.

“We are even further from reaching the vaccination coverage that is needed to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19 – about 70 to 80 percent of the population – and thus control transmission.”

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Rachel Scott

Rachel joined The Nassau Guardian in January 2019. Rachel covers national issues. Education: University of Virginia in Charlottesville, BA in Foreign Affairs and Spanish

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