Belgium's decision to continue AstraZeneca vaccinations, explained

Belgium's decision to continue AstraZeneca vaccinations, explained
Credit: Belga

In response to a growing number of countries temporarily putting AstraZeneca vaccinations on hold, virologist Marc Van Ranst took to social media to explain why Belgium continues to use the vaccine.

On both Facebook and Twitter, Van Ranst posted a detailed explanation about Belgium's decision not to follow at least 15 other countries - including France, Germany and the Netherlands - in suspending AstraZeneca vaccinations for the time being.

"It seems like an avalanche," he said. "And as soon as one large and/or influential country suspended AstraZeneca vaccination, it increased the pressure on the others to become over-cautious too."

Van Ranst referred to a study that showed that 1.5 million cases of deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism (blood clots) are detected and that over 500,000 people in the EU die from blood clots every year.

"This is more than breast cancer, prostate cancer, HIV/AIDS and road traffic accidents combined," he said, adding that blood clots are anything but rare, and a major cause of mortality. "Major risk factors are smoking, oral contraceptives, obesity and long plane flights."

Referring to the EU's coronavirus figures, he stressed that at least 36 million cases of Covid-19 have been detected in Europe over the past year, and that 860,000 people have died from it.

"Yesterday, 2,500 Europeans died from Covid-19," Van Ranst said. "Covid-19 is thus anything but rare, and is a major cause of mortality in the EU.

Additionally, more than 17 million AstraZeneca vaccines have been administered so far in the EU and the United Kingdom. According to the figures available on Tuesday, 15 cases of deep vein thrombosis were reported to the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

"In a group of 17 million people, we would normally expect 705 cases of deep vein thrombosis," Van Ranst said. "So, we see far fewer cases of deep vein thrombosis in vaccinated people than expected."

The same goes for pulmonary embolisms, of which 22 cases were reported to EMA. However, in a group of 17 people, about 862 cases were expected.

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In the UK, which has "the most experience with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines," according to Van Ranst, 23 clotting incidents (eight deep vein thromboses, and 15 pulmonary emboli) were reported on 11.5 million Pfizer vaccines. "This is 1 in 500,000 vaccinations."

Among the 9.7 million AstraZeneca vaccines administered in the UK, 27 clot incidents (14 deep vein thromboses and 13 pulmonary emboli) were reported. "This is 1 in 352,000 vaccinations."

At the moment, the experts do not see any reason to suspend AstraZeneca vaccinations in Belgium, Van Ranst repeated.

Belgium followed the approval of the vaccine by EMA, which both on Monday and Tuesday reaffirmed that "the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19, with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks of side effects."

On Thursday, EMA will give an update on its ongoing analysis of the situation. "If EMA changes its advice, Belgium will follow and implement that new advice," said Van Ranst, echoing earlier statements by the Vaccination Taskforce.

At this time, there is "no scientific justification at all" to pause vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to Van Ranst.

"It protects 100% against severe Covid-19, hospitalisation and death, and 70-75% against mild Covid infections three weeks after the first vaccination," he said. "We are in the middle of a pandemic, and the AstraZeneca vaccine works well."

Stopping the administering of the vaccine now only increases vaccine hesitation, Van Ranst said. "When aiming for herd immunity, increasing vaccine hesitation is not a good long-term strategy."

"In conclusion: the side effects of stopping AstraZeneca vaccinations are Covid-19 hospitalisations, long-term organ damage due to Covid-19, and death due to Covid-19," he added.

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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