(BLACK PRESS file image)

Opinion: Straight talk needed for vaccine trust

If the AstraZeneca brouhaha proves anything, it is the importance, in these pandemic times, of being straight with the public.

The story began a little over two weeks ago when two women in Austria developed blood clots shortly after being inoculated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. One, an otherwise healthy 49-year-old, died.

Austria’s response was to suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine while the situation was evaluated.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing elsewhere in Europe. Norway reported that two otherwise healthy patients developed blood clots and died after receiving the AstraZeneca shot. Two more developed clots, but didn’t die.

Denmark reported one death under similar circumstances, as did Italy. To date, 37 instances of AstraZeneca recipients in Europe developing blood clots have been identified.

On March 11, Norway, Denmark and Iceland suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Four days later, France, Italy, Spain and Germany joined the list. All in all, more than a dozen nations suspended the use of this particular vaccine, including Thailand, Indonesia, Ireland and Sweden.

This, in spite of the fact that the European Union’s main drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency, as well as the World Health Organization, both insist that the vaccine is safe.

On Thursday, after looking into the situation, the European Medicines Agency concluded once again that AstraZeneca’s vaccine is both safe and effective.

Indeed, a number of experts deride the initial decision to suspend the vaccine, arguing that it made no sense.

They note that the 37 cases of suspected adverse reactions represent a tiny fraction of those who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine. They note that no one has identified a causal link between the vaccine and blood clots.

The governments that ordered the suspension remain unrepentant. The Germans say it is significant that the clots were found in otherwise healthy people. French President Emmanuel Macron points out the importance of ensuring that the public has faith in the vaccination effort.

That faith could be eroded if the public believed governments were downplaying the risks associated with vaccination. Macron is right about this. People are willing to follow expert advice – as long as they believe these experts are playing straight with them.

The problem with the AstraZeneca business is that some experts, for perfectly understandable reasons, think it important to give the benefit of doubt to vaccines.

They point out that variants of COVID-19 pose the most significant threat to public health. They note that the best way to deal with this threat is through mass vaccination.

Thus (the argument goes) anything that gets in the way of rapid, mass vaccination – including dubious allegations of blood clot risk – should be avoided.

In Canada, politicians have been doing their best to avoid the blood clot debate entirely. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau points out that Health Canada has ruled AstraZeneca safe and says that’s good enough for him.

Insofar as there have been debates in Canada over the use of AstraZeneca, they have focused on age. Health Canada OK’d AstraZeneca’s vaccine for adults of all ages. Then an advisory committee said it shouldn’t be given to those over 65.

A few days later, the same advisory committee reversed itself and said the vaccine was suitable for anyone over 65.

So far, there have been no recorded instances in Canada of blood clots associated with AstraZeneca. But then the rollout of this particular vaccine has just begun here.

Now that the European Medicines Agency has given its blessing (again) to the vaccine, the suspensions imposed across the continent will probably be lifted. But the damage has been done. In France, one poll estimates that now only 20 per cent of the population trust the AstraZeneca vaccine.

That lost trust will be regained only if people believe that politicians and experts are giving them the straight goods.

Thomas Walkom is a National Affairs freelance columnist.

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