As the world grapples with the third wave of COVID-19 pandemic, the need for vaccines has never been greater. With a limited quantity of approved vaccines available for over 7 billion world population, the stakes are becoming higher and every approved vaccine counts.
AstraZeneca, one of the only 10 approved vaccines so far was seen as a hope that will fill the wide gap, especially in developing countries. The United States and the United Kingdom have secured large quantities of Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccine doses, but Europe still has a huge deficit.
On the other side of the fight to tame the virus are Russia’s Sputnik V, while China has rolled out Sinopharm for its citizens. Bloomberg vaccine tracker said about 9.60 billion doses have been reserved through more than 130 agreements by many countries.
AstraZeneca however, is the vaccine of interest. The company struck a deal with University of Oxford in April 2020 to develop a cutting-edge vaccine and distribute 3 billion doses to the world in a non-profit gesture during the pandemic.
AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine is part of the GAVI COVAX AMC WHO’s initiative.
The GAVI COVAX AMC is the innovative financing instrument that will support the participation of 92 low and middle-income economies, giving them access to donor-funded doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines from the first quarter of 2021.
While the program offers hope to developing countries, its aim is to protect at least 20% of each participating population by the end of 2021. More than 1.3 billion of vaccine doses will be made available to the 92 participating economies by the end of the year.
This plan however, is on the verge of being altered. There have been reports of about 40 cases of blood clots resulting in the death of more than eight people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine, giving many countries the alibi to halt the vaccination exercise.
So far, more than 18 countries, including Germany, Italy, France and Spain have suspended the use of the jab. The European Union is seriously considering putting it away.
With the stakes so high, as Europe is currently grappling with the third wave of the pandemic amidst shortage of vaccines, the dilemma to choose between a few deaths that may result from the vaccine-induced blood clots and many more deaths that will come from the virus is ongoing.
On Tuesday, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the European Union’s medicine regulator, said it has launched an investigation into the reports of AstraZeneca blood clots. But it’s convinced, even though there have been confirmed cases of blood clots among those who received the jab, that “the benefit of using AstraZeneca vaccine outweighs the risks.”
“EMA currently remains of the view that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risk of hospitalization and death, outweigh the risks of side effects,” the Agency said.
Outside Europe, Thailand, Australia and Democratic Republic of Congo followed the steps of European countries by delaying the administration of the AstraZeneca jabs. The suspensions have placed AstraZeneca in a bad light and the negative publicity around the vaccine is threatening to undermine Europe’s chance to beat the pandemic keeping pace with the US.
AstraZeneca shares tumbled about 3% on Thursday following the news that Denmark had joined the suspension ranks.
The growing number of countries suspending and delaying the jabs is now considered political. AstraZeneca is not a vaccine company; it was compelled by moral obligation to delve into vaccine production through a deal with the University of Oxford, and now it’s paying some price for that.
“With the vaccine, I think they got in over their heads. They probably didn’t realize the politics behind it and they are not a vaccine company,” says Andrew Berens, a biopharma analyst at SVB Leerink. “They felt a moral obligation to help the Oxford-UK technology … obviously it turned into a huge political issue and somewhat of a PR blemish on a company with a very good track record.”
AstraZeneca’s popularity is dwindling as more governments make the decision to suspend its vaccine. A poll conducted in Germany on Wednesday showed 54% of Germans believe the government was right to suspend the jabs. In France, a poll on Wednesday showed trust in AstraZeneca dropped to 20% compared with Pfizer/BioNTech’s 52%.
Although like EMA, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stood behind AstraZeneca and more countries, supporting the assertion that the suspension has all been fueled by politics, as governments, not scientific institutions, were making the decision to suspend the vaccine, more countries are moving to reverse their decision to suspend AstraZeneca.
“What is the point to have scientific institutions like the EMA and the WHO if decisions on vaccines are taken on political grounds?” asked Sylvain Giraud, a health directorate official.
Many of the countries who made the decision to suspend AstraZeneca are believed to have done so following the steps of others.
French media have suggested the suspensions by Paris, Rome and Madrid were in concert, with leaders in all three countries deciding in a series of phone calls after Germany’s decision that they had no option but to suspend.
Although the WHO reiterated on Friday that the AstraZeneca batches under question were manufactured in Europe, while its vaccine attached to COVAX were made in India and South Korea, many African countries, who depend solely on COVAX, are contemplating their choice of AstraZeneca, just like Congo.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation received its first batch of AstraZeneca earlier this month, and has been under pressure to suspend it following the steps of other countries. The West African country said there is no reason so far to stop administering the jab.
Apart from the fact that AstraZeneca batches being administered in Europe and Africa are not the same, Nigeria has not recorded any case of blood clot to compel her to suspend the jab.
Unlike Europe which has access to multiple vaccines, Africa’s choices are narrowed due to lack of funds, inadequate infrastructure and hot climate. It will therefore hurt its chances to contain the pandemic if African countries begin to tow the path of Europe just for political correctness.