A sizable batch has just arrived, and withholding it is problematic
The approvals for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines by UK regulators in December were moments of brilliance in the darkness of the pandemic.
Hailed as a crucial element in reducing the impact of Covid-19, the vaccines have been frequently described by Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, as “doing the heavy lifting” when it comes to bringing the virus to heel.
And after a year of living under draconian restrictions which have decimated the economy, torn families apart and caused untold damage to our children’s education, news that the vaccines would be speedily rolled out across the UK was widely welcomed and celebrated.
Demand for the vaccines has so far been high and, with the programme prioritising the most vulnerable people, this isn’t much of a surprise. However, for the vaccine to be effective, it is essential that the majority of the population is vaccinated — and that is why the development in the Republic of Ireland is a headache for health officials here.
There are already those who view the vaccines with suspicion, believing it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty that a vaccine developed in less than 12 months is safe to administer. Then there is the anti-abortion group, Precious Life, which has been leading a concerted campaign against the vaccine.
And while there has been a high take-up of the vaccine to date, it is thought this may begin to tail off as the programme begins to target younger members of the population — many of whom believe they are not at risk from Covid-19.
So, the latest development — a decision by officials in the Republic of Ireland to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine amid concerns over its safety — is bad news for officials here.
It comes after a review from the Norwegian Medicines Agency showed four new cases of “serious blood clotting in adults” had occurred after the jab. Authorities in Denmark, Bulgaria and Iceland have also suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
It is important to remember, however, that Ireland’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, has stressed it is a “precautionary” measure.
“It has not been concluded that there is any link between the Covid-19 vaccine AstraZeneca and these cases,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, the current guidance from the UK’s regulatory body, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), is still recommending that people receive the vaccine.
Dr Phil Bryan, MHRA Vaccines Safety Lead, said on Friday: “Vaccine safety is of paramount importance and we continually monitor the safety of vaccines to ensure that the benefits outweigh any potential risks. The Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic authorities’ action to temporarily suspend use of the vaccine is precautionary whilst they investigate.
“Blood clots can occur naturally and are not uncommon. More than 11m doses of the Covid-19 AstraZeneca vaccine have now been administered across the UK. Reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population. The safety of the public will always come first. We are keeping this issue under close review but available evidence does not confirm that the vaccine is the cause.”
For its part, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland closely monitored the situation over the weekend and yesterday it announced that the programme will continue after the MHRA said the “evidence available does not suggest the vaccine is the cause” of blood clotting problems.
This must have been welcomed by officials here given Northern Ireland received significant amounts of AstraZeneca vaccine last week which need to be used by the end of the month. Now their attention will turn to making sure that public confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine has not been damaged.