Coronavirus: experts say no reason for alarm over reports elderly people died after being given vaccine

Holly Chik
·4-min read

Recent deaths among elderly people in Norway who received a Covid-19 vaccine should be treated with caution because they were all high-risk individuals, public health experts have said.

“All reports of safety issues must be taken seriously, but the initial reports [from Norway] do not reveal cause for alarm,” Jerome Kim, director general of the International Vaccine Institute said.

Last week it was reported that 29 elderly people had died in Norway after receiving the first dose of a vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech. So far, Norway, has inoculated over 40,000 elderly people.

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The Norwegian Medicines Agency said that all those who died also had “serious basic disorders”, Bloomberg reported on Saturday.

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“Most people have experienced the expected side effects of the vaccine, such as nausea and vomiting, fever, local reactions at the injection site, and worsening of their underlying condition,” it said.

Pfizer said in a statement that it was working with the Norwegian regulator and the number of incidents so far is “not alarming” and “in line with expectations”.

Kim, from the International Vaccine Institute, said deaths among elderly people in nursing homes were still to be expected.

“The ability of these vaccines to protect against symptomatic Covid-19 is the kind of protection you hope to see in this [section of the] population, one at particular risk [from] poor outcomes if they have Covid-19,” Kim said.

In Norway, around 400 care home residents die normally every week, according to the British Medical Journal.

Further investigations and more detailed evaluation, including autopsies, were under way to determine if there was a common cause of death, Kim said, while the health authorities should clarify if common batches of vaccine were used.

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While it is unclear exactly when the deaths occurred, Norway has given at least one dose to about 42,000 people and focused on those considered most at risk if they contract the virus, including the elderly.

The Norwegian health authorities have changed their recommendations on the use of the vaccine to consider excluding the terminally ill, Pfizer said on Monday.

The company said in a statement that it was working with the Norwegian regulator and the number of incidents so far is “not alarming” and “in line with expectations”. It added that the regulator would investigate all deaths to see if they were linked to the vaccine.

The vaccine, jointly developed by the US and German companies, has also been given to millions of people in Britain and the United States.

The European Union approved its use last month and Japan hopes to have approved it by mid-February.

In Britain, the first Western country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, more than half of its population over the age of 80 have had their coronavirus vaccine, according to health secretary Matt Hancock.

“I’m really pleased we can now offer jabs to the over-70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable,” Hancock tweeted on Monday.

Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, an epidemiologist from the school of population health at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said one option would be to delay giving the vaccine to the very old until more data was available.

While the Norwegian deaths may be unrelated to the vaccine, health authorities need to be vigilant and check data from other countries, he said.

“Millions of doses of Pfizer vaccine have been distributed and not a single case has died elsewhere. If there is some real issue, then very elderly people in some countries might die as well,” he said.

“But we need to keep an eye on this, as if this is a true finding, which is very unlikely, this could be a disaster.”

Separately, Brazil approved the emergency use of vaccines from Britain’s AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac on Sunday. The country has recorded almost 8.5 million coronavirus cases with nearly 210,000 deaths.

Trial data for the Sinovac vaccine was released in a confusing and piecemeal fashion, but on Friday the drug maker confirmed that it had an efficacy rate of 50.4 per cent.

But Kim warned: “We have to be very careful not to extend the results beyond what they actually tell us. We don’t know whether the vaccine prevents transmission. We don’t know the impact on communities or cities.

“We do know that the vaccine protects individuals from symptomatic disease. You would hypothesise that this should reduce hospitalisations and deaths, but that needs to be formally studied. None of the existing trials can say that yet, including this one.”

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