Dr. Bonnie Henry assured people that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is safe despite the vaccine being suspended in several European countries after reports of a small number of blood clots.
B.C. received 68,000 doses of AstraZeneca on Tuesday, which will be used on a parallel track to immunize front-line workers in industries that have seen COVID-19 outbreaks such as food processing plants and agricultural sites. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are being used in B.C. to inoculate the public, starting with seniors 80-and-older and Indigenous people 65-and-older this month.
Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said she’s been closely following reports that two people in Europe died shortly after receiving the vaccine. Henry discussed the matter with Health Canada officials Thursday and assured the public the vaccine is safe.
“We are watching this very carefully,” she said Thursday. She said investigations into adverse effects “is something that is not unexpected when a new product, a new vaccine is used on large numbers of people.”
She noted that tens of millions of people in the U.K. have been immunized with AstraZeneca and “the same safety signals have not happened there.”
While the European Medicines Agency said there is no evidence the vaccine is linked to an increased risk of blood clots, health authorities in at least nine European countries including Denmark, Norway and Iceland on Thursday suspended their use of AstraZeneca’s doses — some entirely, and others only on specific batches — pending further investigation.
The agency says 30 blood clots, including two which were fatal, in more than five million patients who received the vaccine isn’t out of step with the normal rate of blood clots in the general population.
Dr. Brian Conway, president and medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said investigations into possible adverse effects are a normal part of the regulatory process for vaccines. He said the medical guidance issued by Health Canada on Thursday gives him “a high degree of confidence that this isn’t an issue that should affect the rollout of the AstraZeneca in Canada and in particular British Columbia.”
Conway said he’s aware that as a result of the breakneck speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed, the public is watching closely for any side-effects. However, public health agencies around the world have been hypervigilant in identifying any safety concerns, which is why he’s pleased Health Canada issued its guidance so quickly Thursday.
Prof. Horacio Bach, an infectious disease expert with the University of B.C., said blood clots typically occur in one out of every one thousand people. Considering the fact that millions of people have been vaccinated with AstraZeneca, there would have to be hundreds of cases every month to support any causal link, he said.
The 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca provided to provinces this week were manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, Henry said, not in the European facilities where the doses in question were produced. The B.C. Centre for Disease Control monitors adverse events linked to people who are vaccinated and flags any safety issues that might require a hold to be placed on a certain batch or vaccine.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is recommended for people under age 65.
Carlo Mastrangelo, AstraZeneca Canada’s head of corporate affairs, communications and sustainability, said the company has completed a new safety review of 10 million patients who received the vaccine. He said it uncovered “no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism or deep vein thrombosis in any defined age group, gender, batch or in any particular country” with its COVID-19 vaccine.
“In fact, the observed number of these types of events are significantly lower in those vaccinated than what would be expected among the general population,” said Mastrangelo.
B.C.’s immunization committee will release more details later this month on which front-line workers will be prioritized for the AstraZeneca vaccine but Henry has said the first batches will go to the highest-risk workplaces.
— With files from The Canadian Press