A number of British citizens have criticized health authorities in the U.K. for their slow response regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine. Many countries halted the use of the vaccine, manufactured in partnership with the University of Oxford, following reports of blood clots in some patients. However, regulators at home did not immediately issue guidance – even denying any connection to the adverse reactions. Because of this slow response, even experts have voiced their concerns regarding its domestic use.
Among these critics is Peter, a retired medical professional. The retired doctor lost his 59-year-old wife Julia to the AstraZeneca vaccine’s adverse reaction. She died March 31, two days after Peter found her unconscious at home. Julia initially experienced a headache that lasted for nine days, after she got the first shot of the two-dose vaccine in mid-March. It was only on March 29 that Peter came home and found her in a coma.
Doctors at the Harrogate District Hospital in North Yorkshire, England determined that Julia suffered a “catastrophic brain injury.” They added that her injury resulted from a blood clot in a vessel near the brain, coupled with a dismally low platelet count. Both ailments were connected to reactions that followed inoculation with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The retired doctor partly blamed himself for not having picked up the signs of a brain hemorrhage earlier. But he also pointed his finger at U.K. authorities for their lack of transparency regarding serious reactions from the vaccine. According to Peter, his wife – a former drug representative for the British pharmaceutical firm – could have been saved had the government alerted the public of the vaccine’s possible side effects sooner. “There was an opportunity … when something could have been done,” he lamented.
The U.K. Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) was already probing the connection between the AstraZeneca vaccine and the adverse reactions around the time that Julia started experiencing headaches. It was only around March 18 that the British regulator released a statement saying that the vaccine had nothing to do with the blood clots.
The MHRA said that time: “This has been reported in less than one in a million people vaccinated so far in the U.K., and can also occur naturally. A causal association with the vaccine has not been established.” It turned down a recent request by the Financial Timesto provide a timeline of when the adverse reactions occurred, citing patient confidentiality. “We cannot release details related to individual reports … as these risk identification of individuals,” its response said.
The MHRA belatedly released guidance regarding AstraZeneca – to the disappointment of experts
On April 7, the MHRA released guidance that said adults below the age of 30 should be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine. The agency announced the new guidance during a joint news conference with the U.K. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization. The decision to limit the use of the vaccine to those under 30 was based on data that showed the age group having a higher risk of adverse reactions from the vaccines than developing serious COVID-19.
Experts have been unwilling to criticize the MHRA publicly for its response to the AstraZeneca vaccine side effects, given the agency’s high regard among British medical circles. But several scientists told FT that the agency was “too slow” both in picking up the reports of adverse reactions and relaying its findings to the medical community, the media and the general public.
University of Bristol psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky said: “The MHRA was slow in responding to the emergence of … symptoms associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, and slow to communicate what they were finding.” He continued that he was “not the only one” who thought that way.
Dr. Gillies O’Bryan-Tear of the U.K. Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine remarked that things would turn out better had the British regulator acted sooner. He commented: “Their response … has been measured but, yes, a bit late. Deciding how and when to communicate this sort of information is very tricky indeed”
Science Media Centre Chief Executive Fiona Fox meanwhile remarked that the MHRA’s delayed response could have serious repercussions. “I don’t object to the MHRA taking more time to assess the evidence, but I really worry about them leaving a vacuum that could be filled with misinformation,” she said.
While the MHRA was still mulling over guidance regarding the vaccine, many countries have moved to suspend use of the vaccine, albeit temporarily. Some of these countries have since resumed using it. However, Denmark officially banned the vaccine in the country on April 14.
Danish Health Authority Director General Søren Brostrøm said in a statement: “Based on the scientific findings, our overall assessment is there is a real risk of severe side effects associated with using the COVID-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca. We have, therefore, decided to remove the vaccine from our vaccination program.”