Braid: We need all the weapons we can get to fight COVID-19

Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are all almost completely effective in keeping vaccinated people who do get infected from needing hospital or ICU care

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The AstraZeneca vaccine routinely takes a hit to its reputation, even though its behaviour has been mostly exemplary.

There is a very rare but dangerous side effect — a blood clot in the brain — that mainly affects people under 55, most of them female.

The numbers are vanishingly small. Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw cites figures from Europe. There’s been one case of clotting for 25,000 doses in Norway, and one in a million in the U.K., she says.

As yet, no case of clotting has been reported in Canada.

But with the National Advisory Committee on Immunization urging a pause in AstraZeneca shots for those under age 55, Alberta agreed on Monday.

Nine hundred Albertans younger than 55 have already received doses. They’re certainly entitled to feel uneasy, although the danger is said to drop to zero by two weeks after the shot.

I asked Hinshaw Monday if the 900 vaccinated people under 55 would be directly notified by AHS with information and cautions about the side effect.

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AHS won’t go that far, but all physicians are being alerted with a special bulletin. Everyone still receiving the vaccine will get full information beforehand and monitoring, if there are side effects.

“Any adverse event related to AstraZeneca, related to blood clots or otherwise, will be identified, and followed up on,” says a note from Alberta Health.

Even before this, people were a bit wary of AstraZeneca because of conflicting reports from Europe about side effects.

Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell, a little past the new age cut, got her first shot about three weeks ago, after consulting her doctor about whether she should.

The advice? Go ahead. The risk of COVID-19 is far greater than a very rare side effect — except, of course, for the very few unlucky enough to experience it.

“I really felt like it’s my duty,” Farrell says of the decision.

In Europe, AstraZeneca wasn’t used for a time in those over 65 because of sparse data on efficacy.

Vaccinations were restarted after new evidence became available. But now, we find there’s a risk to people under 55, and it’s fine for older people.

This will be red meat to anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. They mystify me. How can people obsess over vaccine side effects that might afflict a handful of people worldwide, while airily dismissing a virus that so far has killed nearly 23,000 Canadians?

And yet, some older Albertans might reasonably shun AstraZeneca vaccine at the very moment the province is expecting thousands of doses to arrive from the U.S. They’re scheduled for delivery this week, although Alberta Health says that isn’t confirmed yet.

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Luckily, AstraZeneca doesn’t need deep-freeze storage. It can be kept at regular refrigeration temperatures for up to six months. Any unused doses could be taken up later, after doubts about this vaccine fade.

The AstraZeneca story tends to obscure, hopefully temporarily, the much more serious surge of the virus itself.

Covishield/AstraZeneca vaccine doses have now arrived in Alberta.
Covishield/AstraZeneca vaccine doses have now arrived in Alberta. Photo by Tyler Shandro / Twitter account

Cases are rising as the variants spread. B.C., for example, has just imposed tough new restrictions — closing bars and restaurants for indoor dining, shutting down low-intensity exercise classes and suspending indoor religious gatherings and worship.

In Alberta, there’s no movement yet on new or restored restrictions.

But variant infections now total 27.2 per cent of active cases in the province.

Deaths are declining because of vaccination, but the growth of variants threatens yet another surge by this endlessly aggressive virus.

Here’s an interesting fact about vaccines. When all four major ones are considered — Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson — they might vary somewhat in overall prevention, but they all do one crucial thing exceptionally well.

All four are almost completely effective in keeping vaccinated people who do get infected from needing hospital or ICU care. They tame a deadly disease, turning it into a much milder affliction over all age groups.

That includes AstraZeneca.

Soon enough, probably, the medical factor that causes the rare side effect with this vaccine will be identified, and the problem will be addressed.

COVID-19 is relentless. Humans can’t afford to throw down their weapons.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

dbraid@postmedia.com

Twitter: @DonBraid

Facebook: Don Braid Politics

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