Mixed messaging and extreme caution from authorities around the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine could hurt immunisation rates across Europe and lead to more deaths from COVID-19, a drug safety expert told Euronews.
Concerns over reports of blood clots in a small number of recipients of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine prompted more than a dozen European countries to suspend use of the jab in recent days, even though the company and international health bodies said there was no indication that the vaccine was causing the clotting, and that inoculation should continue.
The World Health Organization again backed the AstraZeneca jab on Thursday, saying it saves lives and that its benefits outweigh any risks.
Anthony Cox, a reader in clinical pharmacy and drug safety at the University of Birmingham, said the authorities' decision to suspend the jab pending a new safety review from the European Medicines Agency is "understandable," but that the messaging around it has been confusing.
"Although I can see the reasoning for pausing the vaccination campaign in some countries, it seems a little foolish to me because it sort of suggests that there is a link [to clotting]. Even though they’re saying it's safe and we're pausing just in case, it suggests there's a link," Cox said in a live TV interview.
Erring on the wrong side of caution?
He said the precautionary principle, which several governments have cited to explain their move, was being misused in this case, as it could end up doing more harm than good by hampering already low vaccination rates in Europe.
"Normally with the precautionary principle, you'd be concerned about actions that could have a harm that we don't know exists. But the actual downside of not doing the thing is low," Cox explained.
"The downside of this [suspending the AstraZeneca shot] is that we will drive up vaccine hesitancy and thus decrease the amount of the population that will be finally vaccinated (…). Just even the pause in vaccination will lead to deaths."
AstraZeneca said earlier this week there have been reports of blood clots in 37 people among the 17 million who have received at least one dose of its vaccine in Europe. "This is much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed COVID-19 vaccine," the company said in a statement.
"It's not always the best policy to withdraw the vaccine, especially when you have a disease that's killing people," Cox argued.
"The decision then will be perhaps to give a warning to patients who are going to have the vaccine or to look for risk factors for certain patient groups that you might wish to give further advice to."
Watch the interview in the video player above.