A number of countries in Europe halted the use of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine over the past two weeks, due to an unproven (and unlikely) association with blood clots. Following a review by the European Medical Agency, they have now resumed, but this politically driven decision has seriously dented public confidence in the vaccine, which was already low.
On top of this, Britain and Brussels remain embroiled in a protectionist struggle over access to doses.
Incompetence, a haphazard rollout and government misinformation across Europe have already undermined confidence in COVID-19 vaccines in general, but especially the AstraZeneca vaccine. This latest move will clearly exacerbate this problem, which is entangled with the farce of “vaccine nationalism”.
As a result, the hapless, cynical representatives of capitalism risk dragging out the pandemic, jeopardising countless lives.
17 European countries paused their rollout of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, including France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Ireland. The trend started in Austria, which halted the use of one batch on 7 March when a person under the age of 50 died of blood clots after the jab.
Denmark became the first to suspend the vaccine altogether, with Iceland and Norway following a week later after a number of so-called thromboembolic events. The latter claimed that three healthcare workers were hospitalised with blood clots after taking the vaccine, with one passing away.
In response, the European Medical Association (EMA) launched a review into whether there was any causal link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots, and concluded on Thursday that the vaccine is “safe and effective.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also stated that: “[T]here is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus.”
Is there any merit to the concerns over blood clots?
No such side effects were detected in any of the trials to which the AstraZeneca vaccine has been subjected. Of 24,000 participants in the company’s trials, only 1 percent reported a serious adverse event, and of these 168 people, more received the control drug than the active vaccine.
But this is a relatively small sample of mostly healthy people. What about real-world data?
So far, around 37 thromboembolic events have been recorded across 17m vaccinations. Especially given that most of those vaccinated so far have been older, one would expect hundreds of people in this population to be at immediate risk from blood clots in normal circumstances.
In short, there is no reason to assume the vaccine caused these dangerous blood clots. Even if it was a small contributor, there are plenty of other, commonly-used medications (from over-the-counter painkillers to birth control) that carry risks of complications and adverse reactions.
After the initial action taken by some, the suspension was clearly coordinated by leading EU countries, with French Secretary of State for Economy and Finance Pannier-Runacher stating:
“You can imagine that we spoke with Italy, we spoke with Spain, we spoke with Germany and it’s no coincidence if these four countries, on the same day, announced the same decision.”
Once a few countries had taken the decision to halt vaccination with the AstraZeneca jab, the others were afraid of being blamed in case something was wrong. Here politics trumped scientific evidence.
Of course, any indication of potentially serious side effects needs to be investigated fully, but the known facts certainly did not warrant a two-week pause. This was the firm scientific opinion at the time, which has now been validated with the EMA report.
This move needs to be understood in the context of the EU’s disastrous vaccination campaign. So far, the bloc has delivered 7 doses per 100 people. This is compared with 23 in the US, and 31 in the UK.
We have explained the reason for this sluggish rollout in more depth elsewhere, but one big factor is the EU faces a shortfall in supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine, starting in January, which the company blamed on a production “glitch”.
These supply problems are related to different countries competing for contracts and the refusal of pharmaceutical companies to relinquish control over intellectual property rights. This resulted in a three-way public spat, in which the EU threatened to impose export controls on AstraZeneca vaccines, manufactured in Brussels, that were destined for the UK.
Another factor in this situation is the aforementioned issue of vaccine scepticism. As we have explained before, this is closely related to the masses’ dire lack of trust in the political establishment, and the absence of a class-based explanation and programme from the left for the seemingly endless nightmare of lockdowns and rising infection rates.
This mood of distrust preceded the pandemic, given a decade of cuts and austerity imposed following the capitalist crisis of 2008-9. But it has been intensified further by the hopeless handling of this health disaster by the ruling classes of one country after another.
In France, where vaccine scepticism is especially high, Macron’s hated government of the rich catastrophically mishandled the situation from day one.
The deliberately hesitant rollout in France, starting with elderly people in care homes, simply made millions of French people even more suspicious of the vaccines, as they assumed there was something to hide.
Now, the exact same thing has happened with the AstraZeneca vaccine. This massive overreaction and domino effect across the EU began partly as an ill-fated attempt to maintain public confidence.
Describing Germany’s decision as a “precautionary measure”, Health Minister Jens Spahn argued that, to “maintain trust in the vaccine, we have to give our experts in Germany and the EU time to check the recent incidents”.
If the idea was to maintain trust in the vaccine, then it will have the exact opposite effect.
Misinformation and mismanagement
And public trust in the AstraZeneca vaccine was already at rock bottom due to a slew of misleading comments and bad press from European political leaders and media outlets.
Initially, a number of European health agencies, including in France and Germany, refused to offer the AstraZeneca vaccines to people over the age of 65, arguing that there was limited data on its efficacy for people in this age group.
Later, when more data came out of Britain (where the jab is used for all age groups) indicating the AstraZeneca vaccine was effective and not dangerous and for over-65s, this decision was reversed.
But the idea that the AstraZeneca vaccine was inferior or had worse side effects than the Pfizer or Moderna jabs, for example, caught on.
Scare stories emerged in the European press about health workers becoming seriously ill for days after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. While the leading German financial daily, Handelsblatt, quoted an anonymous source in the health ministry suggesting it was ineffective for the elderly.
This line was picked up by Macron, who made the absurd and unsubstantiated claim that the AstraZeneca jab is “quasi-ineffective for people over 65”. Then the deputy chairman of a German police union went on to claim that officers should get the “best possible vaccine”, suggesting the police were refusing to take it.
All this bad press resulted in millions of people rejecting the AstraZeneca vaccine. At the beginning of this month, the German health ministry reported it had used just 15 percent of its AstraZeneca doses, as people across the country refused to take it or cancelled their bookings.
France had issued just 16 percent of its AstraZeneca doses as of 25 February, Italy a fifth and Spain a third. By contrast, uptake of the Pfizer vaccine was at around 80 percent. Opinion polls in France said only 20 percent of people trust the AstraZeneca vaccine, compared to 52 per cent who trust the Pfizer jab.
The problem is the AstraZeneca vaccine is essential to the European vaccination campaign, in part because it is far cheaper to manufacture and store than the mRNA-based products from Pfizer and Moderna, which need to be maintained at very low temperatures.
Despite pathetic attempts by the likes of Merkel and Macron to backpedal, with the latter saying he would take the AstraZeneca jab “If that’s the vaccine that’s offered to me”, fragile public trust has been dealt a further serious blow. Although the EMA’s report cleared the vaccine for use, this trust might never be restored.
In a bizarre twist, Macron has now gone on the rule that AstraZeneca vaccines will be resumed only for those over the age of 55, because those who suffered from blood clots after being vaccinated were in a younger age bracket. This complete reversal of his previous position still maintains there is a danger, despite the EMA report.
Having already messed up their vaccine rollout, the ruling classes of Europe have shown criminal irresponsibility by adding fuel to the fire of vaccine scepticism.
We are in an absurd scenario where thousands of doses are gathering dust because nobody will take them. This will doubtlessly cost far more lives than a small number of serious side effects if it prolongs the pandemic.
This rolling disaster is having a clear political effect, with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union facing a rout in regional elections on the weekend. The CDU, once a pillar of stability in Europe, has seen its popularity crumble after its lacklustre response to the pandemic, and particularly its mishandling of the vaccination programme. Support for the party has fallen below 30 percent, and there are widespread calls for the Health Minister to resign.
Meanwhile, Macron is currently tied with National Rally’s (formerly National Front’s) Marine Le Pen in the presidential election polls.
The representatives of European capitalism are totally losing control of the situation and look increasingly out of their depth.
As ever, the public health and political crisis is bringing narrow, nationalist considerations to the fore at precisely the time when global cooperation is most needed.
From the beginning of the year, we have witnessed the ‘European community’ break down into acrimonious recriminations over access to doses, with member states taking an “every man for himself” approach, despite a joint purchasing agreement negotiated via the European Commission.
As noted, in January, a “vaccine diplomacy” incident broke out between Britain and Brussels over limited AstraZeneca doses. This saw the latter threaten to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol (established as part of the Brexit deal cobbled together last year), which would have imposed a hard border on the island.
With AstraZeneca further cutting its planned shipments to Europe, Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca jabs to Australia as part of new rules imposed by the EU to protect its supplies and force AstraZeneca to meet its commitments.
Now, European Commission Ursula von der Leyen claimed she was considering triggering Article 122 of the Lisbon Treaty, last used during the Saudi oil crisis of the 1970s, to force Britain to give up some of its surplus vaccines to the EU.
In addition to imposing an effective ban on vaccines leaving European factories for Britain, this would theoretically allow the EU to seize AstraZeneca’s factories and waive intellectual property claims.
Ultimately, the EU wants the British to release AstraZeneca from a contractual agreement that means it can only export UK-manufactured jabs once it fulfils its commitments to Britain. Obviously, the British state has no intention of doing so.
AstraZeneca, for its part, is sitting pretty in the middle of this clash, benefitting from the leverage afforded by owning the vaccine. The company is actually cutting its promised deliveries to Europe further still, despite having already received billions of public money in pre-orders.
Covid Cold War?
It is possible that criticism of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and aspersions on its safety, are an especially cynical part of the EU’s attempts to apply pressure to the company and the British government to give up more doses. Certainly, some EU leaders may be inclined towards schadenfreude at Britain and AstraZeneca’s expense. Ultimately, this debacle will prove self-defeating.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has sniped back at Brussels, saying he will get the AstraZeneca jab himself. This petty squabbling is further evidence of the vaccines being exploited as geopolitical football by the representatives of the ruling class.
The EU has also complained that the US is sitting on millions of unused doses, due to not having approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use, and should therefore give up some of its spare vaccines.
Meanwhile, the EU has promised to shore up its supply by signing a lucrative new “top up” contract with Pfizer (whose partner company BioNTech is based in Germany) for 10m extra doses for the second quarter of the year.
Vaccinating the world is big business, with huge profits to be made. It is clear that there is fierce competition between different pharmaceutical companies and they are most likely taking advantage of these difficulties in terms of setting their prices, which need to be covered with public money.
All these shenanigans risk disastrous consequences for the masses in the advanced capitalist countries, given the additional delays in the vaccination campaign. Moreover, it is a complete scandal that millions of hoarded doses are sitting unused in the powerful imperialist countries, while billions of people in poorer countries lack any access at all.
Over the channel, the reactionary Brexiteers leading the Conservative government have wasted no time in bragging about the relative success of Britain’s vaccination campaign compared to continental Europe.
Health Minister Matt Hancock made the absurd claim that Britain was quicker to approve the Pfizer vaccine because of Brexit, which allowed the country to get around the EMA’s red tape.
In a later interview, Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson denied this, making the even more idiotic boast that Britain was simply a “better country” than France or Germany.
This chest-thumping should be seen in the context of Britain’s COVID-19 death rate, which is the highest on earth by population size. This is a direct result of the Tory government’s callous incompetence in mismanaging the pandemic.
End this madness!
This colossal mess is a direct consequence of the decrepit capitalist regime, based on private property and the nation state. Under this system, a handful of powerful private companies have a stranglehold on the means of medical production, and manage them for profit, dictating terms to states.
Apparently, a company in Finland developed a patent-free vaccine that was ready for trials in May. However, the Finnish government ultimately signed a contract with Pfizer, because there is no mechanism for funding large-scale human trials outside of Big Pharma or venture capital. The state was not willing to make up the costs, even if it would’ve saved money and lives in the long run.
Meanwhile, rival imperialist powers are struggling over access to critical resources in order to make money for their respective capitalists, and immunise their populations first, to quickly return to normal economic activity.
The insanity of a vaccine trade war in the middle of a pandemic is positive proof of the irrational, decrepit state of the capitalist system.
Not to mention the fact that, in poorer countries, access to the vaccine is almost non-existent, precisely because advanced capitalist countries are hoarding available supply. The Big Pharma capitalists are even using strong-arm tactics in their pursuit of contracts.
It has been reported that, as part of contract negotiations, Pfizer asked some Latin American countries to put up sovereign assets, such as embassy buildings and military bases, as a guarantee against the cost of any future legal cases for possible side effects.
None of these problems would exist under a globally planned economy. Under such a system, the Big Pharma parasites would be expropriated; their resources managed on a rational basis; and production and distribution of medicines conducted seamlessly across federated socialist states.
This pandemic presents an unanswerable argument for the superiority of a planned, socialist economy over a capitalist one, the limitations of which are being ruthlessly exposed on a daily basis.