The odd blood clotting disorder linked with Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine is a different kind of clotting problem, one that requires more extensive care, can’t be predicted and is “really kinda bad,” says a Toronto infectious diseases specialist. The case fatality rate ranges between 25 and 40 per cent.
For those reasons and more, Dr. Andrew Morris believes it’s time to halt AstraZeneca’s shots in Canada, except for people aged 40 or older living in hotspots with a high amount of disease activity and a high risk of infection, and only then if people face a two- to three-week delay in getting a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shot — mRNA vaccines that haven’t been associated with the same blood clot “safety signal.”
There is “essentially no scenario” outside of the hardest-hit regions where it is beneficial to give AstraZeneca rather than wait for an alternative, Morris, a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said in an interview. While stressing that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the table, “there is very little excuse for us to be continuing to give AstraZeneca to Canadians” because the estimated risk of a clotting disorder is too high, Morris said.
It’s the latest shot to the controversy-plagued vaccine. Alberta is moving to stop using AstraZeneca for first doses, The Globe and Mail reported Tuesday. “Because we have so much mRNA vaccine, these are the vaccines that we are recommending for people to book their first dose with,” unless they can’t take an mRNA vaccine for health reasons or prefer the AstraZeneca shot, Dr. Kirstin Klein, a local medical officer of health for northern Alberta told the Globe.
There is very little excuse for us to be continuing to give AstraZeneca to Canadians
Provincial medical officers of health across the country are reviewing the use of AstraZeneca. The European Union, meanwhile, has opted not to renew its AstraZeneca contracts, which expire in June. In Norway, an expert panel is urging both AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines be ditched over the blood clot scare.
According to Health Canada, the current estimated rate of VITT in Canada is approximately one case per 100,000 persons vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Ontario’s COVID science table, in a brief published Friday, said the risk, based on published estimates, could be as much as one in 26,000, or as little as one in 127,000.
Morris’ best estimate is that one in 40,000 doses will lead to VITT, and that VITT frequently results in complications, with about one in five leading to death and many more cases of severe illness. Given the risk, AstraZeneca only makes sense for those at high risk of COVID, he said. “But why give them AZ, when we can give them an mRNA vax?”
Twelve cases of VITT — vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia — have been reported in Canada, including three deaths. “To me, the most important issue is, we were aware of this a month ago — we probably didn’t appreciate the frequency as much a month ago, although we suspected it,” Morris said.
With two million combined doses of Pfizer and Moderna arriving weekly through May, and 2.4 million combined doses per week scheduled for June, Canada will soon be “swimming in vaccine,” Morris said. “I think that the regulators should say very clearly that, if there are no options for an mRNA vaccine and the incidence of cases is X number, then only in that situation should AstraZeneca be used.”
Some worry this messaging will only make people more confused and concerned. But others agree with Morris. “I’ve done the numbers, too,” University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman said on Twitter. “AZ was a useful tool, but our knowledge and understanding, and our supply of other vaccines, has changed. VITT is devastating. We need to move on.”
Seconded. I’ve done the numbers too. AZ was a useful tool, but our knowledge and understanding, and our supply of other vaccines, has changed. VITT is devastating. We need to move on. https://t.co/Pu8DIjiAfD — David Fisman (@DFisman) May 9, 2021
Just over two million of the 2.3 million doses of AstraZeneca doses delivered to the provinces had been administered as of Monday. The remaining vials won’t “make or break the pandemic” and the 20 million doses on order from an American plant should be donated to India and other countries, Morris said.
“If we could get a billion doses of AstraZeneca to India, I would do it in a heartbeat, because so many people are dying. And yes, some of those people will die (from vaccine-induced blood clotting) but you’re going to be saving millions and millions of lives,” said Morris, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and infectious diseases doctor at Sinai Health and University Health Network.
This shouldn’t be construed as buyer’s remorse, he said. People should not feel as if they were somehow “hoodwinked” into getting AstraZeneca. Every authorized COVID vaccine in Canada has been “absolutely life-saving.”
A new analysis just out from Public Health England suggests a single dose of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 80 per cent effective at preventing death from COVID. That rises to 97 per cent after two doses of Pfizer.
If we could get a billion doses of AstraZeneca to India, I would do it in a heartbeat
When COVID is raging, “it’s a total no-brainer (to use AstraZeneca) because, even if you are adding that small risk of harm, it’s outweighed by the benefit,” Morris said.
But outside of hard-hit Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Peel, Halifax and other pockets, the third wave is cresting or receding in most parts of the country.
Ontario is offering AstraZeneca to 40 and older. Of the 24,655 COVID-related deaths reported in Canada as of Monday, only 1.6 per cent, or 390, are in people under age 50, and three per cent (749) in people in their 50s.
The blood-clotting syndrome linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine happens four to 28 days after being vaccinated. The mechanism isn’t entirely clear, but it’s thought the body produces antibodies that attack platelets, tiny blood cells that form clots to stop or prevent bleeding. Serious clots have been reported in the brain and other critical organs. The clots can cause strokes, heart attacks and loss of blood supply to a limb.
Canada’s panel of independent vaccination advisors last week reiterated that Pfizer and Moderna remain the “preferred” recommended jabs for all Canadians, and that people at low risk of COVID should consider holding out for an mRNA vaccine, unless they choose to get vaccinated sooner.
However, the second dose question remains — what happens to those who received a single dose of AstraZeneca? Officials are awaiting the results of a large study in the U.K. that’s tested alternating doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer in hundreds of volunteers.
The chances that there will be an issue with mixing vaccines are slim to none
“The chances that there will be an issue with mixing vaccines are slim to none,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, a medical microbiologist and infectious diseases specialist at Toronto’s Sinai Health System. “There are a lot of things keeping me awake at night. This is not one of them.”
“The rules have always been that we don’t ask people to be vaccinated if the vaccine is not a direct benefit to them,” McGeer said. “And the calculus of direct benefit to a person for the AstraZeneca vaccine at the moment is really difficult. It depends on community rates around the person, the individual involved, how well they can protect themselves, how sick they’re going to get if they happen to get COVID, what the probability of VITT is and how long people are going to have to wait for Pfizer or Moderna if they don’t choose to get AstraZeneca.”
With COVID rates dropping in most parts of the country, “that changes the calculations of risk in a non-trivial way,” McGeer said.
“If you got your AstraZeneca vaccine more than a month ago, that’s a good decision with a good outcome,” she said. “I know all sorts of people — my husband, my sister, lots of people — who got the AstraZeneca vaccine and it was a good decision at the time.
“This is the thing about pandemics. New diseases. Things change. The right thing to do changes over time.”