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"Political": Europe keeps AstraZeneca vaccine on pause -- and baffled experts are furious

If you’re not paying attention to this story because it’s Over There instead of Over Here, you should make amends now. Especially if you resent the implication, frequently heard during the pandemic, that Europe’s response to COVID has been superior to America’s. It’s true that deaths here per capita are higher than in most European countries, but not all: Belgium, the UK, and Italy are higher. And there’s no question that we’ve far outperformed most of them on vaccinations, to the point where “their” pandemic and “our” pandemic are no longer tracking.

The panic sweeping European governments about the AstraZeneca vaccine this week is so humiliating and disastrous, though, that it’s an all but singular failure. The closest analogy I can think of here is the hydroxychloroquine craze last year, when people were grasping for a miracle cure in the virus’s early days. But even that was more defensible than what’s happening with AZ overseas. There were some studies, after all, that suggested HCQ might be effective against the virus. As far as I’m aware, there’s … nothing to indicate that AZ’s vaccine might be causing blood clots in some recipients. Not a bit of meaningful data beyond anecdotal reports that a very few people who’ve been vaccinated just so happened to develop clots later.

Read this post for background if you missed it a few days ago. Out of 17 million doses, just 37 reports of clotting have been recorded. Based on “evidence” that microscopically thin, most major European countries have halted administration of AstraZeneca’s vaccine until the issue can be studied further. Germany, Italy, France all caved on Monday, and Sweden followed suit yesterday. More than a dozen countries are temporarily withholding the vaccine from vulnerable populations and may be permanently sowing doubts on an already vax-resistant continent about AZ’s product — for nothing.

It’s inexcusable. Regulators like the WHO are all but begging European governments to cut it out and resume dosing out AZ immediately:

Vaccination against COVID-19 will not reduce illness or deaths from other causes. Thromboembolic events are known to occur frequently. Venous thromboembolism is the third most common cardiovascular disease globally…

At this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue.

The European Medicines Agency, Europe’s top drug regulator, also announced that it has no reason to believe AstraZeneca’s vaccine is causing blood clots and agreed with the WHO that the benefits exceed the risks of side effects. That is, even if it could be proved that AZ had caused clots in 37 cases, the incidence of that side effect is so rare that administering the vaccine widely will certainly save many more lives from COVID than will be lost to clotting problems. You could, in other words, concede that Germany et al. have good reason to worry in this case — which they don’t — and still see their decision to suspend the vaccine as unconscionably idiotic.

Scientists are irate, knowing what this momentary vote of no confidence in AstraZeneca’s product is going to do to public opinion in Europe and elsewhere:

“While it’s easy to scare people, it’s very hard to unscare them,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia…

“By unnecessarily suspending the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, the European countries may have created a new problem,” added Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who is helping develop a vaccine in India. “This will erode vaccine confidence across Europe and it could extend into Africa. The vaccine ecosystem is fragile, and it doesn’t take a lot to get a vaccine voted off the island.”…

There has been no indication of an increase in blood clots among Americans who have received vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, all of which trigger the immune system to recognize a protein on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Offit said he sees no reason why the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine would cause blood clots but not the others.

What makes this especially bad is that AstraZeneca was cracked up to be the “workhorse” vaccine for the planet. It’s the cheapest of all and it’s easy to store, which is why scientists had been hoping/expecting that it’ll be the most commonly used globally. Now that Angela Merkel and company have baselessly endorsed paranoia it, God only knows how many poorer countries will pass on it and how many potential recipients will shun it even if it’s available to them. It’s a continent-wide panic, and instead of trying to ease it national governments are feeding it by agreeing to suspend distribution while the clotting issue is “researched” or whatever. Europe’s in no position to slow down either. To the contrary, just eight percent of its people have been vaccinated so far compared to 21 percent in the U.S. At the current pace of vaccinations, they won’t reach 70 percent until September. If some meaningful number of Europeans decide they won’t accept AstraZeneca after this, that pace will slow even further.

So how is it, you may ask, that a terrible decision to groundlessly suspend AZ’s vaccine made by one government came to be emulated by a dozen other governments in the region? Simple: Risk aversion. Once one country decided to pause, neighbors were left in the difficult position of either pausing as well out of an abundance of caution or proceeding with the AstraZeneca vaccine and being accused of recklessness by critics in their own countries. Even if there’s only the tiniest chance that further study will reveal a connection between AZ’s product and blood clotting, which government would want to take that chance when influential powers nearby like Germany had already paused? It’s a prisoner’s dilemma — and it’s political, not scientific. “There is an emotional situation that is the fallout from this case that started in Germany,” said the president of Italy’s drug regulator yesterday. “There is no danger. There is no correlation at the epidemiological level.”

And so, as I write this, Europeans who might otherwise be getting immunized today are being left to take their chances with the virus. Some will get infected in the coming weeks, and some of those will die. All because Merkel and other regional leaders prioritized political ass-covering over the health and safety of their constituents.

Here’s Boris Johnson earlier today emphasizing that he’ll be getting vaccinated soon and it’ll certainly be the AstraZeneca vaccine for him. That’s a good show. And it reveals a benefit of Brexit: Now that the UK’s gone its own way, it’s not only free to do what it wants on vaccines relative to the continent, it may even revel in flouting the foolish European conventional wisdom. Great Britain’s going to end up with herd immunity many months before the EU gets there, and they’ll deserve it.