The rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Ontario is being hampered by unproven reports that the vaccine is linked to blood clots, Canadian health experts say.
Those between the ages of 60 and 64 in Toronto, Kingston and Windsor-Essex have been able to get the AstraZeneca vaccine at more than 325 pharmacies since late last week.
However, some are being deterred by news from Europe and elsewhere in the world, where nearly a dozen countries have suspended use of the shot, amid safety concerns.
On Monday, Italy, Germany, Spain and France became the latest to press pause. The countries are responding to reports from Norway and Demark that some people developed blood clots after taking the shot, though there is no direct evidence to prove they were caused by the vaccine.
The drugmaker says that as of March 8, there were 37 cases of blood clots among people who received the vaccine. However, it adds that it reviewed 17 million people who were vaccinated in the European Union and the U.K. and found there is no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots “in any defined age group, gender, batch or in any particular country.”
“This is much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed COVID-19 vaccines,” the company added in a statement on its website.
“If – and that’s a big ‘if’ – there’s an association, it appears to be very, very rare,” says infectious diseases expert Dr. Isaac Bogoch.
Health Canada says no adverse events have been reported in connection with the vaccine in Canada so far. In the U.S., the vaccine is still being considered for approval. About 30,000 Americans participated in a clinical trial that is currently being independently reviewed.
In a press conference in Montreal on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also attempted to assuage any fears, insisting the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe and has been rigorously tested by Health Canada.
“Health Canada and our experts and scientists have spent an awful lot of time making sure that every vaccine approved in Canada is both safe and effective,” he said.
The World Health Organization is asking countries not to suspend AstraZeneca vaccinations, pointing at the lack of evidence linking it to clots.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also reiterated his support for the vaccine on Monday, which was developed in partnership with England’s Oxford University.
“We have one of the toughest and most experienced regulators in the world,” said Johnson. “They see no reason at all to discontinue the vaccination programme for any of the vaccines that we’re currently using.”
But it appears the damage might already be done as more people grow skeptical about the shot.
“They are saying it’s still safe, but I could not accept that because of what I’ve heard,” one Torontonian tells CityNews. Another says, “I’m worried about the side effects because I have a lot of health problems myself.”
Doctors say blood clots are actually more common in the general population than the public realizes and they’re emphasizing that COVID-19 itself can cause serious blood clots among those sick with the virus.
They add that while the investigations into the AstraZeneca vaccine may be creating hesitancy, the opposite should be happening.
“It really is confidence-inspiring that the slightest hint of somethin, and the manufacturer, governments, authorities are looking further into it,” said Dr. Barry Pakes, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “There is this degree of transparency around vaccines that’s really unprecedented.”
With four approved shots and millions of doses expected to come into the country in the next few weeks, Trudeau is urging eligible Canadians not to shop around or wait for a particular vaccine.
“The best vaccine for you to take is the very first one that is offered to you,” he said.
So far, many Ontarians are heeding his call.
“The phones are ringing off the hook,” says pharmacist Victor Wong, “We’ve exceeded the target.”
Wong owns the pharmacy inside the Shoppers Drug Mart at Kennedy Road and Lawrence Avenue. He says since Friday they’ve administered 400 of the total 500 doses they received, and expect to run out by Tuesday.
Across 160 participating Shoppers and Loblaw pharmacies, more than 28,000 thousand Ontarians have been vaccinated so far, according to the pharmacy chain.
Some Ontarians say despite the reports, they are eager to get any vaccine.
“I’m going to go for it and hopefully it’ll save my life,” said one resident.
With a file from Reuters