Call for calm on vaccine safety

Samoa’s Ministry of Health (M.O.H.) has not said which of the many COVID-19 vaccines in development around the world will be used to inoculate the country’s population. But an expert at the Burnet Institute in Australia says the deaths of 33 elderly people in Norway who died after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine should not be cause for worry.

Dr. David Anderson, the co-head of the Global Health Diagnostics Laboratory at the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health said he is not concerned with reports of vaccine-related death.

He said the reports of illness and deaths of people who received the COVID-19 vaccine in Norway were taken out of context and they should not cause any hesitation.

“I believe that the reports of illness and deaths in people who have received the COVID-19 vaccines have been taken out of context and perspective,” Dr. Anderson told the Samoa Observer via email.

“The vaccines, like all vaccines, can cause mild or moderate side effects in otherwise healthy people, and the clinical trials showed that they had acceptable safety.

“The experience in Norway where a number of very frail elderly patients died soon after vaccination is regrettable, and may well be related to the side effects of the vaccine ‘pushing them over the edge’, but I don't believe that it should cause any hesitation for the vast majority of people to get the vaccine.”

He has yet to receive the vaccine but noted that when it is his turn he will have no hesitation to line up to receive his shot. 

“I will certainly be lining up to get the vaccine as soon as it is offered to my age group, and I don't have a real preference for which vaccine,” said Dr. Anderson.

“Although I do think that future vaccines such as Novavax, if it passes all the testing, will be more suitable for use in lower-resource settings, being more like a regular flu shot.

“I am 59 – so it will be a fair while before it is my turn for the vaccine, probably in the middle of this year I think.”

Dr. Anderson is not worried about reports from Norway because he says they must be followed up with further testing before conclusions are reached. 

“I am not really concerned by the reports of those deaths at this stage – it needs to be followed up [for us] to be completely sure that the death rate was not too much higher than normal for people who were already very sick and frail,” Dr. Anderson said. 

“When you consider that in the sick and frail elderly population the death rate from COVID-19 is extremely high, the benefit is greater than the risk.

“Although I would say that for countries where there is no current COVID-19 in circulation, you might not want to vaccinate this small group of very ill patients. But for the rest of the population, I don't think there is any cause for concern.”

Emails sent early this week to Samoa’s Director-General Dr. Leausa Take Naseri were not returned. 

The Observer inquired about the type of vaccine expected to be administered to the public and other issues regarding Samoan vaccinations for the COVID-19 virus.

The Local Norway media outlet reports that no link has been established between the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the post-vaccination deaths in the country.

Since the start of Norway's vaccination campaign at the end of December, the country has registered 33 deaths among elderly people who have received their first dose, according to Norway’s public health authorities.

Of the 13 cases analysed in detail so far, "they are people of advanced age, are frail and have serious illnesses, all of them," according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

"When it comes to causes there hasn't been any analysis done yet," its Director  Camilla Stoltenberg said. 

"It is important to remember that on average about 45 people die every day at nursing homes in Norway, so it's not given that this represents any excess mortality or that they are related to the vaccines.”

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