Our overly cautious approach to the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine needs to change

Click to play video: 'Health Canada says AstraZeneca vaccine still safe, despite ‘stronger link’ to rare blood clots'
Health Canada says AstraZeneca vaccine still safe, despite ‘stronger link’ to rare blood clots
WATCH: (April 14, 2021) Health Canada chief medical adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma said Wednesday that the agency had updated the label on the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to warn people of the possible risk of very rare blood clots, saying the change was to ensure "Canadians can be informed of the side effects." – Apr 14, 2021

While it was certainly welcome news yesterday to hear of increases in the amount of Pfizer vaccines arriving in Canada next month and in June, it was disappointing to hear of the more immediate disruption in shipments of the Moderna vaccine.

Ultimately, Canada will have large quantities of vaccine available — and that is undoubtedly a good thing — but we are in the throes of a very serious third wave at the moment and we need as much of a vaccine arsenal we can get.

Obviously, Moderna’s production issues are outside our control and we can’t just wave a magic wand and make vaccines appear. But at the very least we can do is make use of the resources we have here at the moment: specifically, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

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There has been no shortage of drama surrounding this vaccine during its relatively short existence and there’s no doubt that public confidence in it has been shaken.

The good news is, though, is that the real-world evidence — particularly from the U.K. — is that this is a rather effective vaccine. Moreover, we know a lot more now about this potential rare side effect involving unusual blood clotting, including how to recognize it and how to treat it.

We know that the risk of blood clotting from COVID-19 is far higher and we also know that there are all kinds of other medications and activities that pose a higher risk of blood clots. Furthermore, these rare clotting side effects are similar to what’s known as Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, but Heparin is still regularly used as a blood-thinner.

For now, though, the recommendation from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) remains the same: the AstraZeneca vaccine should only be administered to those over 55 years old. That is a relatively narrow sliver of the Canadian population, and we’re seeing evidence across the country that there’s simply not enough demand for the current supply of this vaccine.

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We can’t force people to take a vaccine, but it seems counterproductive to be denying access to a vaccine. The insufficient demand for the AstraZeneca vaccine is totally of our own making. We need to sort this out.

For now, though, we seem paralyzed with inaction. Health Canada’s position is that “the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine continue to outweigh the risks of getting COVID-19” and as such they “are not limiting the use of the vaccine to any specific age group or sex.”

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But nothing has changed. The provinces could act on that advice, but it seems everyone’s waiting for NACI to make an official recommendation. For their part, NACI says they’re looking into it.

And so we wait. Each day that goes by, however, means more unfilled appointments and potentially doses going to waste. It is a travesty that any vaccine doses would be going in the garbage rather than in an arm, especially as we watch COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise across the country.

There are increasing calls for the age restrictions around the AstraZeneca vaccine to be eased. Even dropping it to 50 or 45 could make a huge difference. Or, perhaps the recommendation could be different for men, since these rare side effects seem to have occurred largely among women.

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If those in their 40s or early 50s don’t want this vaccine, then fair enough. But at least give people the choice.

As more AstraZeneca vaccine is set to be delivered to Canada — as well as 300,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the end of the month — we urgently need a smarter strategy to effectively deploy these resources.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has lamented the number of vaccines sitting in freezers across the country — the implication being that the feds have done their part and that these provinces need to administer those doses. But as one expert has noted, most of the doses languishing in freezers are of the AstraZeneca variety. Absent a change, more doses arriving will simply mean more doses in freezers.

We’re in a crisis here. Let’s start acting like it.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.


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