What you need to know
The task of reassuring the public that AstraZeneca vaccines were safe was not easy. Officials in Belgium and Taiwan have met the challenge.
Two public faces of Taiwan’s pandemic response, Su Tseng-chang and Chen Shih-chung, have received the first doses this morning of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
The symbolism of inoculating Su, the Premier, and Chen, the Minister of Health and Welfare at National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei was not unintentional. It was the result of a recommendation from a Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) panel to address fears that have arisen from Europe’s temporary pause in administering the AstraZeneca vaccine last week.
In proceeding with the vaccinations with the well-orchestrated appearances and statements of political and public health officials, Taiwan joins a European country that also did not interrupt its vaccination program — Belgium.
Last week, Belgium’s government decided to continue administering vaccine shots manufactured by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company. With Belgium’s gamble now appearing to pay off, it looks like Taiwan’s vaccination campaign will also stand to profit from not backing down from AstraZeneca shots.
Though it has been one of the slowest European countries to inoculate its population with Covid-19 vaccines, Belgium managed to achieve a small but meaningful victory in its vaccine campaign last week.
More than a dozen member states of the European Union decided to temporarily halt the use of the vaccine developed by Oxford and AstraZeneca on March 15, due to a series of reports that the vaccine had caused potentially fatal blood clots in recipients after receiving a jab.
According to AstraZeneca, around 17 million people in the EU and the United Kingdom had already been administered a shot of the vaccine and less than 40 cases of blood clots were reported. Denmark and Germany were among the first to halt the use of Oxford’s double-stranded DNA vaccine. Italy, Spain, France, Norway, Sweden, and Latvia, among others, followed swiftly.
Belgium, however, opted to continue using the AstraZeneca vaccine, driven by the Belgian Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke of the newly rebranded socialist party Vooruit. Vandenbroucke inherited the department from his predecessor Maggie De Block on October 1 and was expected to turn around Belgium’s failing Covid-19 response.
Vandenbroucke’s call to stick with AstraZeneca allowed the country to continue inoculating its health workers and elderly throughout last week. The move was regarded as a well-needed moral victory in the country. Especially when barely a week later, on March 18, the European Medicines Agency declared that the benefits of using the AstraZeneca shots outweigh the potential link to the forming of blood clots. The EMA also stated that the vaccine was proven not to cause thromboembolic events in persons receiving it.
Marc Van Ranst, a Belgian virologist advising the Superior Health Council, which determines Belgium’s Covid-19 measures, praised the decision of the Belgian government.
Van Ranst had published a longread on Twitter where he explained why the use of AstraZeneca is safe and more importantly why cases of thrombosis associated with the vaccine weren’t out of control.
It’s important to note that Van Ranst had already received a shot of AstraZeneca himself on February 24. He had specifically chosen the British-Swedish jab to disprove the theory that the double-stranded vaccine was less effective than Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s single-stranded RNA vaccines.
In the thread, Van Ranst brought up the point that over 500,000 people in the EU die of blood clot complications every year. This statement was based on a study which examined over 1,5 million cases of deep vein thrombosis, also known as blood clots. He then reminded readers that over 850,000 people had already died in the EU due to complications from Covid-19.
“Blood clots kill more people than prostate cancer, HIV and road traffic accidents combined, but the most serious health risks to the public remain smoking, oral contraceptives, long plane hauls and obesity,” the virologist also remarked in the article. Van Ranst also appeared on CNN’s Connect the World later that day, where he made a similar case in favor of continued use of AstraZeneca shots.
A day later, the Belgian authorities reinforced the statements Van Ranst had made by releasing a number of statistics on blood clots found in patients after receiving AstraZeneca jabs. For example, the Federal Agency for Medicine and Health Products reported that Belgium had given 215,862 doses of the vaccine to people and only registered 11 cases of blood clots.
Earlier in February, Steven Van Gucht, another Belgian virologist advising the Superior Health Board, also jumped to the defense of AstraZeneca’s efficacy and commented on the supposed side effects. The virologist felt he had to step in after South-Africa had temporarily suspended use of AstraZeneca jabs over the fear that they wouldn’t be effective against the South-African variant of Covid-19.
“The vaccine is 80 percent efficient against all stages and forms of Covid-19 we currently identified, including mild symptoms. The doses will also keep people with serious illness out of the hospitals. There is no clinical proof that AstraZeneca shots do not deliver the excellent results we expect them to,” Van Gucht stated.
The combination of a staunch government vaccine plan and vocal virologists communicating facts and reason to the public has given Belgium a shimmer of optimism about inoculation which hasn’t been felt in the country since last summer, when low infection numbers allowed for an arguably laid back summer before numbers spiked up heavily again in October.
With Taiwan’s vaccination campaign underway, it will be important for Taiwanese health officials and government research bodies to keep a vigilant eye on the development of public opinion regarding the British-Swedish jabs and possible side effects.
Taiwan has proven since the start of the pandemic that it is able to stand firm in the face of adversity and uncertainty in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the mass inoculation of its population will prove to be a completely different kind of challenge, especially with the possibility of mixed signals about the vaccine coming from the European Union.
Perhaps Belgium can inspire the Taiwanese government to stick with the AstraZeneca jabs as well, should any doubts arise. Speed is of the essence when it comes to vaccination and Taiwan shouldn’t make the same mistakes that Belgium did at the start of its inoculation campaign.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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