Is AstraZeneca safe? You bet your life

By: Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram
Life’s a shooting match, and no one knows that better than those in the insurance industry.
If you want to know the odds of meeting any sort of misfortune, an actuary is your best source.
Why are car insurance rates high? Because people keep crashing cars. In the United States, your lifetime chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident is about one in 100.
You’re far less likely to choke on your own food. Those lifetime odds are one in 2,500. Dying of sunstroke? One in 8,000 (or perhaps one in a million in St. John’s during April).
So, what are your chances of dying from a rare blood clot caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine?
The chance, according to the latest numbers, is about one in 250,000.
You’re almost twice as likely to die from a lightning strike.
Bad press
A week ago, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) released its initial verdict on the relationship between the AstraZeneca vaccine (which it now calls Vaxzevria) and the occurrence of a rare blood clot condition.
In short, it found the connection is real, but so rare as to be almost insignificant compared to the benefits.
“COVID-19 is associated with a risk of hospitalization and death,” the agency wrote. “The reported combination of blood clots and low blood platelets is very rare, and the overall benefits of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19 outweigh the risks of side effects.”
That’s good enough for Rod Russell.
“I would get this vaccine right now if someone offered it to me. No hesitation,” he told The Telegram Friday.
Russell, a viral immunologist at Memorial University, says he’s afraid bad headlines about the vaccine will induce hesitancy when it’s not warranted.
“This vaccine has been a PR nightmare for the company,” he admitted. “It’s had about five bumps in the road now. I find 2020 and 2021 have been like 10 years wrapped up in two because so much has happened.”
In Phase 3 trials, he said, the developers accidentally gave people half the dose they intended to, but it turned out to work better than planned. Then, they had a question of whether it would be effective for people over 65. That turned out to be a non-issue.
Finally came the blood clot scare, in two waves. The latest caused Canadian officials to recommend halting its use in adults under 55 years of age.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s been given in separate clinics to anyone aged 55-64 who wants it.
 Risk analysis
Like any medical treatment, vaccines are all about risk-benefit analysis. And historically, vaccines have among the lowest risk profiles on the planet.
“I’m not going to say there’s no risk. Of course, there’s a risk. But if you weigh it out, it’s a risk I’d be willing to take,” said Russell.
“If you’re worried about blood clots, you should get the vaccine, because there’s a lot less chance of getting a blood clot from the vaccine than there is from getting the virus.”
How much less? There’s a one in five chance with the disease.
In other words, COVID-19 itself is about 20,000 times more likely to cause a blood clot than AstraZeneca.
The vaccine risk is more common in women, but Russell notes that both birth control pills and pregnancy are riskier.
“The risk (of blood clots) from birth control is way higher than that.”
The type of clot the vaccine causes — a combination of clots and low platelet count — can be more serious than a garden variety clot.
“People who have received the vaccine should seek medical assistance immediately if they develop symptoms of this combination of blood clots and low blood platelets,” the EMA wrote.
For two weeks after receiving it, recipients are asked to be aware of any of the following symptoms:
• shortness of breath
• chest pain
• leg swelling
• persistent abdominal (belly) pain
• neurological symptoms, such as severe and persistent headaches or blurred vision
• tiny blood spots under the skin beyond the site of the injection.
 Positive signs
So far, AstraZeneca clinics in the province have booked up within hours of being announced.
Russell says that’s a good thing.
“I’ve talked to at least five people this past week just around the hospital … and everybody in the hallway is like, ‘I’m getting my vaccine this week!’ So they’re really excited about it,” he said.
Furthermore, with Canada going through a third wave of COVID-19 and growing fears of complacency after more than a year of pandemic measures, Russell says vaccines are the only thing that can end the cycle.
“I have two little girls and I want life to be normal again,” he said.
“The fastest way back to any kind of normal is herd immunity, is vaccination.”