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COVID-19: Astra Zeneca Vaccine Given All Clear By EU and US Authorities, But Has the Damage Been Done?

One could be forgiven for not predicting the damage which would be done to the reputation of the Astra Zeneca vaccine developed in conjunction with Oxford university back in 2020. In November 2020, Boris Johnson hailed as “incredibly exciting” the news that the Oxford vaccine had proven clinically effective following trials in adults around the world. Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, expressing confidence in the vaccine, stated at the time, “If this all goes well in the next couple of weeks, then we are looking at the potential of starting the vaccination programme next month for this Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as well as the Pfizer vaccine. But in all cases, the bulk of the rollout will be in the new year. We are looking with high confidence now that after Easter, things can really start to get back to normal”. So what went wrong, and why has the Oxford vaccine been caught up in a political storm around the world? In this article, we will explore how Astra-Zeneca has been embroiled in a political storm in relation to its COVID-19 vaccine and whether they are now out of the woods

Astra Zeneca’s No-Profit Pledge

In June 2020, Astra Zeneca (AZ) announced it had signed a deal with the EU to supply up to 400 million doses of the Oxford university vaccine at cost price. In October 2020, details emerged of the no-profit pledge. According to the Financial Times, for one deal signed with the Fiocruz, a Brazilian Public Health institution, what AZ had committed to was to supply their vaccine at cost price for the duration of the pandemic, but that they had the right to declare the pandemic over by July 2021. It is not clear whether this was written into all agreements entered into by AZ.

Vaccine Under Fire For Poor Efficacy

Earlier this year, the AZ vaccine was on the receiving end of considerable criticism. France’s President Macron said it was “quasi-ineffective”, and it was deemed by many countries as not proven to be effective for those over a certain age. EU countries including Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and Poland advised it should only be given to those under 65, and Italy and Belgium advised it was only to be given to those under 55.

In March 2021, many countries stopped using the AZ vaccine altogether due to fears of blood clots in some recipients. At one point, Luxembourg, Iceland, Sweden, Latvia, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, Norway, and The Netherlands, among several others, had halted the use of the AZ vaccine temporarily until further checks were completed regarding patient safety. As reported in the British Medical Journal, according to the European Medicines Agency (EMA), “as of 10 March, 30 cases of thromboembolic events had been reported among the five million people given the AstraZeneca vaccine in the European Economic Area”. To put this into sharp perspective, according to Phil Bryan, who leads the vaccine safety programme for the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, “Reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population”.

Later in March 2021, EMA confirmed the AZ vaccine is safe, stating, “the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of blood clots (thromboembolic events) in those who receive it”. As a result, most countries have now lifted their temporary ban on the use of the AZ vaccine. Interestingly, Sweden has resumed the use of the vaccine but only for those 65 and over, which is counter to the initial concerns of some countries in the EU that the vaccine should only be used for those under 65.

What Damage Has Been Done To The Reputation Of The AZ Vaccine?

While it is positive that the AZ vaccine has been cleared from a safety and efficacy perspective, some people are now refusing to take the vaccine, including in the UK. Several unions representing healthcare workers in Europe have put on record their members will not take the AZ vaccine. And according to Forbes, a group representing over 3,000 Italian doctors wrote a letter to their government stating they would only take mRNA vaccines such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, not the AZ vaccine. It has also been reported that hundreds of thousands of doses of the vaccine have gone unused in France and Germany as people miss their appointments due to concerns.

At the same time, the EU, in particular, has struggled with its vaccination programme, a point which even President Macron now concedes. Macron stated, “We didn’t shoot for the stars. That should be a lesson for all of us. We were wrong to lack ambition, to lack the madness I would say, to say: It’s possible, let’s do it”. The political wrangling regarding the AZ vaccine has no doubt led, in part, to the lack of vaccination progress across the EU.

And consider the plight of the firm’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot. Back in the Summer of 2020, he was, as the financial times say, “riding high”, with the share price of AZ rising 200% under his leadership. As of now, their share price is down over one-fifth since July 2020 (from £90 to £70).

Final Words

It is not entirely clear how or why the AZ vaccine found itself in the political crossfire. Some believe it was borne out of an ongoing grudge by the EU towards the UK following Brexit. Many EU countries have argued that they were right to be cautious. As a result, it is likely that damage has been done to the reputation of both AZ and the vaccine. Quite how much remains to be seen. As they say, “mud sticks”.

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