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European Paranoia Stalls a COVID Vaccine

A medical worker fills a syringe with the AstraZeneca vaccine at a hospital in Tbilisi, Georgia March 16, 2021. (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)

On the menu today: Europe loses its mind over the AstraZeneca vaccine, allowing us Americans to shake our heads at their primitive superstitions, backwater beliefs, and anti-science attitudes, and wish that they could be as sophisticated and rational as we are; who shouldn’t take the vaccine; and a good reminder about how changes in public behavior often precede the advice of public-health experts.

Paranoia Spurs Europe to Stop Using a Perfectly Good Vaccine

AstraZeneca created a vaccine that works and is perfectly safe according to large-scale trials, but nobody can get it, and nobody is using it.

Okay, that’s a mild exaggeration; The company plans to ship hundreds of millions of doses of its vaccine to 142 countries in the coming months. Before this recent wave of mostly European suspension of use, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for use in 72 countries. But a lot fewer doses of AstraZeneca are going into people’s arms today than a few days ago, and the reasoning behind that decision doesn’t make much sense.

Last week, we received an update on that Baltimore warehouse with “tens of millions of doses” of the AstraZeneca vaccine ready to go, with word that another 30 million doses are currently bottled at AstraZeneca’s facility in West Chester, Ohio. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told Reuters yesterday that independent monitors are reviewing the results of AstraZeneca’s ongoing U.S. COVID-19 vaccine trial, and emergency authorization could come in about a month.

But a lot of European countries suspended using the AstraZeneca vaccine this week, and while I try not to get over my skis and remain humble about my ability to make sweeping conclusions about medical topics, it appears the leaders of these countries have lost their minds.

Based upon the available data, an individual person’s odds of developing blood clots after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine are one in 459,459; for perspective, the U.S. CDC says that your odds of being struck by lightning are one in 500,000.

And yet, as of this morning, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden have suspended use of the vaccine. AstraZeneca skepticism is now spreading outside Europe; Indonesia, Thailand, and the Congo have suspended use of the vaccine as well.

The European Medicines Agency — the EU version of the FDA — approved the vaccine and promises an update on its investigation by Thursday. For now, the EMA is skeptical of the skepticism:

Events involving blood clots, some with unusual features such as low numbers of platelets, have occurred in a very small number of people who received the vaccine. Many thousands of people develop blood clots annually in the EU for different reasons. The number of thromboembolic events overall in vaccinated people seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population . . . While its investigation is ongoing, EMA currently remains of the view that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risk of hospitalization and death, outweigh the risks of side effects.

Here’s a little cultural tidbit you may not know: Europe is full of anti-vaxxers and vaccine skeptics. Europe’s got so many skeptics that in the United States, even with our left-wing crystal-waving New-Age types believing in “healing essential oils” and right-wing paranoid militia-compound types fueling vaccine skepticism, we still look like a bunch of cool, rational, logical Vulcans in comparison.

In December, Ipsos surveyed people in 15 countries on whether they intended to get the vaccine. Sixty-nine percent of Americans said they intended to get it, while 65 percent of Germans, 62 percent of Italians and Spaniards, 43 percent of Russians, and only 40 percent of French people said they would get it.

But vaccine skepticism flourishes all over Europe. The AP warns that “in southeastern Europe, coronavirus vaccination campaigns are off to a slow start — overshadowed by heated political debates and conspiracy theories.” The Spectator observes that polling indicates that only a third to a half of Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians, and Hungarians want the vaccine. The Financial Times reports that half of surveyed German nurses did not want to be vaccinated, along with a quarter of doctors. In Italy, the populist Five-Star Movement has long sown doubt about vaccines.

(Really, can we please bury the stereotype or trope that Europeans are sophisticated modern cognoscenti and we’re just a bunch of Bible-thumping backwater hicks?)

Michael Brendan Dougherty suggested — tongue in cheek? — that the European countries’ wariness of the AstraZeneca or “Oxford” vaccine might be a reflection of lingering animosity over Brexit. I don’t think this is the case, but if it is, my patience for lectures about “the dangers of nationalism” from Europeans was already so small it could only be seen with an electron microscope. A country’s leadership turning down safe and lifesaving vaccines because of lingering political resentments would qualify among the all-time most reckless and irresponsible acts.

Someone recently shared with me the theory that European governments are all hitting pause on the AstraZeneca vaccine because if they don’t, vaccine skepticism and paranoia will explode. By pausing for a few days, these governments look responsive to public concerns. They can review the data, and in a week or so come out and announce that they see no significant risk of blood clots.

The problem with this sort of public-relations maneuver is that it costs these countries several days of vaccinations against the coronavirus, and the virus is way, way, way more dangerous to people than the vaccine. In the Financial Times, German biologist Dirk Brockman said the risks posed by the vaccine were low, particularly when compared with deaths from coronavirus. “It is probably 100,000 times more likely to die of Covid than because of an AstraZeneca vaccine.”

So . . . is there anyone who shouldn’t get the vaccine because of a potential health risk? Sure.

The Small Percentage of People Who Legitimately Shouldn’t Get Vaccinated

There is a small percentage of people who genuinely should not receive a COVID-vaccination shot. (I can’t wait until that sentence gets taken out of context by the anti-vaxxers. “Even National Review says people shouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine!” Folks, get your vaccinations when they’re available. I’m among those lucky enough to have received both shots by now, and other than a brief bout of dizziness and vertigo three days after the first shot, I’m fine.*)

If you’ve had a history of anaphylaxis or non-severe immediate allergic reactions to other vaccines, you should talk to your doctor before receiving the vaccine. If you’re allergic to the ingredients in the vaccine, you should not take the vaccine, or at least consult with your doctor first. The Pfizer vaccine’s ingredients can be found here, the Moderna vaccine’s ingredients can be found here, and the Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine ingredients can be found here.

The CDC also directs that anyone who experiences anaphylaxis after getting the first dose of the vaccine should not get the second dose, which seems like common sense to me.

But beyond that, you should get vaccinated: “CDC recommends that people get vaccinated even if they have a history of severe allergic reactions not related to vaccines or injectable medications — such as food, pet, venom, environmental, or latex allergies. People with a history of allergies to oral medications or a family history of severe allergic reactions may also get vaccinated.”

*I mean, no more dementia than usual.

The Wisdom of Crowds Returns

Our new National Review Online editor, Phil Klein, debuts with a sharp observation worth keeping in mind in the coming weeks and months:

It’s worth recalling that over a year ago now, Americans began changing their behavior before there were widespread restrictions on various activities. While “Fifteen Days to Slow the Spread” began a year ago, on March 16, air travel began its decline in early March (February 28, 2020 being the last day in which the number travelers screened by the TSA exceeded the prior year). Similarly, OpenTable observed that restaurant reservations began dropping in early March, and by the middle of the month (before the national social-distancing guidance was issued), reservations had already been nearly cut in half. When some states began lifting restrictions in last spring, it initially only led to a small increase in people going out.

Likewise, I suspect that the return to normal will be driven by the public. With cases and hospitalizations having dropped dramatically and millions of people getting vaccine doses each day, more and more people will begin to ease up. Those who receive two doses are likely going to start to resume regular activities. They aren’t going to wait until July 4 for President Biden to give them the all clear to hang out with their families.

ADDENDUM: Over on the home page today, the one-year anniversary of “15 Days to Slow the Spread” arrives. Looking back, the slogan and entire presentation look like another “noble lie” from the Trump administration and public-health experts, as it was clear the U.S. was going to need a significantly longer amount of time to mitigate the threat from this virus.

And as usual, the comments section is like a warm bath:

Mr. Geraghty has been the cheerleader for hysterical panic for a year. None of this reaction was warranted, and it’s long past time for him to stop. . . .  This virus should have been treated like the 1957 and 1968 influenza pandemics that also killed over 100,000 Americans (more than 200,000 in today’s population) and millions worldwide, which few noticed back then and nobody remembers today. Absent the crazy overreaction that Mr. Geraghty recounts and joined in, this would have gone little noticed, too.

As of this morning, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States is 548,013. He’s right. That would barely have been noticed if it wasn’t for me.

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