Both the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency have insisted that the vaccine is safe.
The flurry of suspensions by some countries, mainly in Europe, of the AstraZeneca vaccine following reports that a small number of people had developed blood clots after receiving the jabs has drawn a debate among health experts in Nigeria.
It has been over two weeks since Africa’s most populous nation received almost 4 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. In Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and most affected by the disease, authorities said over 12,000 people have been vaccinated 48 hours after the state commenced vaccination.
While Nigeria’s first phase of vaccination is mainly for health workers and other frontline groups, the news that there were side effects among a few people receiving the Oxford jabs in other countries is further escalating the already existing scepticism about the vaccines.
Flurry of suspensions
Austria was the first country to commence an investigation of potential blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Blood clots are solid clumps that form inside the blood. It can be life-threatening if not treated quickly.
Authorities in Austria said they halted the vaccine rollout while investigating the death of one person and the illness of another after taking the shots, according to Reuters.
In a swift move, at least 15 other countries such as Norway, Thailand, Iceland, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, DRC Congo, Denmark and Ireland, and some of Europe’s largest economies, Germany, France and Italy, said they were halting the use of the vaccine or some particular batches of it. Some, like Germany and France, have since reversed the suspension of the vaccines.
The suspensions were mostly precautionary as many countries that halted inoculation could not provide concrete evidence of the vaccine causing the effects.
Both the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency have insisted that the shot is safe and that countries should continue using it.
The British-Swedish pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, also defended its vaccine strongly, stating that there is no link to increased risk of fatal brain haemorrhages and blood clots.
“Around 17 million people in the EU and UK have now received our vaccine, and the number of cases of blood clots reported in this group is lower than the hundreds of cases that would be expected among the general population”, Ann Taylor, Oxford/AstraZeneca’s chief medical officer, said in a statement.
Amid the safety concerns, some high-income countries like the UK and developing countries such as Nigeria and Ghana have chosen to continue the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
Health experts weigh in
While the Nigerian government has repeatedly expressed confidence in the Oxford vaccine, assuring of its safety, health experts that spoke to PREMIUM TIMES shared divergent opinions on concerns raised about the vaccines.
Former chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association, Mike Ogirima, said the move to suspend the rollout of the vaccines by many countries is precautionary “with no objective evidence”.
“WHO has come out to denounce the side effects alluded to Astrazeneca vaccine. Now, we need as a sovereign nation to conduct an evaluation on the recipients of the vaccine locally to ascertain the untoward effects of the vaccine”, the medical doctor said.
“I have not heard of any adverse reactions from Nigerians that have received the vaccines. I am prepared to receive it,” he said.
Henry Ewononu, a public health advocate, said the suspensions and blood clot concerns are causing anxiety. He, however, said there should be no cause for panic yet as no side effect has been identified in Nigeria.
“Over 70 million have received the vaccines, and 30 or so reported issues with blood clots”, he said.
“I agree that blood clotting disorders can be frightening enough, but let’s now start advising patients on symptoms to look out for while allowing science resolve this in a standard way.”
Officials at the vaccination sites should make available hotlines for reporting adverse reactions and trained officials promptly advise patients on what to do, he said.
The medical doctor said the health community has a role to play in bridging the knowledge gap about COVID-19 vaccines.
“Medical and Health officials should not allow the vacuum where the people will now depend on whoever is not qualified to lead in medical advisories to guide the people.
“On this note, I call on the professional associations in the health sector to form a coalition to penetrate the community and saturate it with wholesome information and serve as a bridge between the people and government to assuage their concerning anxieties,” he said.
Promise Akubo, a public health research expert, gave a different view. He said the governments suspending the vaccines are showing how concerned they are about their people.
“There’s need for monitoring and control in every scientific process, which administration of the vaccine is.
“Government and all the stakeholders in the management of COVID-19 cases should by now be on their toes. Vaccine rollout shouldn’t be hurriedly carried out. It is important necessary evaluation is done so that people are not exposed to side effects with grievous health implications,” he explained.
For Confidence MacHarry, security and health data analyst with SBM Intelligence, the ripple effect of the rising concerns about the jabs are that it is playing into the hands of vaccine sceptics.
“That’s for sure. There would be increased resistance to vaccine efforts,” he said.
Nnimmo Bassey, an environmentalist, expressed worry over the development. He however pointed to a bigger problem.
“All these events point to the fact that we need to rebuild our healthcare delivery system. We ought to be in the best place to make our own medicines, including vaccines. And we should be vocal in the struggle to have patent-free and accessible vaccines and other drugs needed for a pandemic of this nature.
“It is time for the nation to wake up. Platitudes and wringing of hands won’t do. More pandemics will happen with the rate of ecological damage going on in the world. Our own environment has been so bastardized and rendered us extremely vulnerable to diseases.
“It is as though we have forgotten the dictum that cleanliness is next to godliness. For a highly religious nation, environmental care should be a topmost priority,” Mr Bassey explained.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is important, especially to the COVAX arrangement, the UN-backed effort that promises access to vaccines for up to 20 per cent of participating countries’ population.
It was through its subscription to the arrangement that Nigeria received 3.94 million doses of the vaccine out of the overall expected 16 million.
Because it is relatively cheap, easy to make, and store, the AstraZeneca vaccine is regarded as the most suitable for developing countries like Nigeria.
PREMIUM TIMES previously reported on nine things you should know about the AstraZeneca vaccines.