Alexander Nazaryan·National CorrespondentWed, 31 March 2021, 7:11 pm
WASHINGTON — The saga of AstraZeneca continued on Wednesday, with top Biden administration medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci defending that company’s coronavirus vaccine the day after Germany limited distribution of the same vaccine, citing persistent European concerns over blood clots.
“Well, the data that they made public, most recently, indicates to me that this is a good vaccine that is going to have a very important role in the global response to this outbreak,” Fauci said during Wednesday’s briefing by the White House coronavirus task force. Those findings indicate that the vaccine is highly effective in preventing COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and fully effective in preventing death.
Still, the AstraZeneca vaccine remains more controversial than its competitors, even as vaccine shortages persist worldwide.
On Tuesday, German public health officials said that with 31 cases of blood clotting having been reported, only people over the age of 60 would be given the AstraZeneca vaccine. Nearly 3 million Germans have received the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to the Associated Press.
Earlier this month, some European nations temporarily halted the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The European Medicines Agency advised against that move, calling the possibility of blood clots “extremely small” while noting the vaccine’s “proven efficacy in preventing hospitalisation and death from COVID-19.”
The agency did note that there were “some concerns” about blood clotting among “younger patients.” Germany appears to have acted on those very concerns in once again moving to restrict deployment of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, even as vaccination efforts across the European continent continue to be surprisingly sluggish.
Without saying so explicitly, Fauci criticized that decision. He described the European Medicines Agency as having concluded that blood clots are “not an issue.” A top British official also defended the AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday, saying the administration of Prime Minister Boris Johnson was “100 percent confident in the efficacy of the vaccine.”
To complicate matters even further, the European Union and United Kingdom are in a fight over where AstraZeneca should be sending its vaccine doses.
These developments come as AstraZeneca prepares to apply for emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If approval is granted — a process that customarily takes several weeks — AstraZeneca, which is based in the United Kingdom, could see its shots administered across the United States as early as May.
Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to the Biden administration on the pandemic, said during Wednesday’s briefing that the FDA would “conduct a completely thorough analysis” of AstraZeneca’s application for emergency use. The speed with which the FDA has approved the use of coronavirus vaccine has been a cause of persistent concern, though public health experts say safety has never been compromised.
If fears persist, however, people could come to refuse the AstraZeneca vaccine, prolonging efforts to inoculate the American population. Although vaccinations have accelerated in recent weeks, thanks to increased supply and surging demand, less than a fifth of the American population is fully vaccinated.
New vaccines will bolster the effort only if those vaccines are trusted by the public. AstraZeneca did not help its own case by releasing efficacy data that was deemed faulty by a safety board at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an arm of the National Institutes of Health that Fauci runs. Fauci pronounced himself “stunned” by the error.
An update followed, showing that the vaccine was slightly less effective than originally thought, preventing symptomatic disease in 76 percent of cases, as opposed to the previous figure of 79 percent. In both the original and updated results, the vaccine was 100 percent effective in preventing serious illness and death.
That may be the most important takeaway from the AstraZeneca trials, though it has sometimes been lost in the public discourse on the vaccine.