To use a song title, March 15 was “Manic Monday” in Portugal. After two months of economic stagnation and collective despair, the country started ‘reopening for business’: 650,000 children and roughly 50,000 teachers and non-teaching staff returned to schools.
The country was following a plan which by early evening suffered an explosive set-back: teachers’ hard-fought ‘victory’ to be included in the first round of priority vaccination was suddenly delayed indefinitely due to mounting concerns in Europe over the safety of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.
In simple language, there have been roughly 40 serious ‘thromboembolic events’, or blood clots (a small number causing death), among the 17 million people in various countries who have received the vaccine in the last two months.
There has been every bit as many of these events recorded in people who have been inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine. But for reasons of their own, European politicians rounded on AstraZeneca – the fate of which will actually be decided this (Thursday) afternoon by EMA, the European Medicines Agency.
In other words, the ‘hiatus’ will almost certainly be sorted by the weekend, seeing vaccine schedules that were pulled to many people’s confusion and dismay on Monday most likely be restored by next week, or at worst the week after.
Portugal’s vaccine task force coordinator Henrique Gouveia e Melo said on Tuesday the whole episode will probably have delayed the country’s roll-out by “five or six days”.
He remains confident, he says, that the first phase of ‘priority’ jabs will be concluded by the end of April.
But the damage this rather transparent furore has done to public confidence in the vaccination process in general is not quite so clear.
In pulling a vaccine on grounds that experts condemn as spurious – neurologist and professor in pharmacology Joaquim Ferreira stressed on national television on Tuesday that the risk of a thromboembolic event with AstraZeneca is 0.0002%, whereas the risk for women taking the contraceptive pill is 0.05% (and no countries have suspended that) – authorities in Portugal stressed they were simply acting ‘with precaution’.
But “deciding to suspend a vaccine to gain confidence can have just the opposite effect”, writes Expresso.
“In the most spectacular and quickest vaccination process in the world – more than 300 million vaccines have been administered (since December) – politicians and pharmaceutical companies have paid little attention to the issue of side effects, either common, rare or marginal. Now they react as if they were a novelty.”
Citizens may recall the fact that all the vaccines given emergency use authorisation for the combat of Covid-19 have been granted protection from future product liability claims.
Ruud Dobber, a member of AstraZeneca’s executive team, told Reuters last summer that the company “simply cannot take the risk if in… four years the vaccine is showing side effects”.
These are all issues that citizens may now be digesting as the ‘serious thromboembolic events’ in 0.0002% of Europe’s population are minutely analysed by EMA, almost certainly to decide that they are not worth the sacrifice of a life-saving vaccine.
As we went to press on Wednesday, all scientific sources in Portugal were agreed: there is no more risk in the AstraZeneca vaccine than in any of the others authorised by regulatory authorities.
Roughly 400,000 doses of AstraZeneca have already been administered in Portugal – with none of the clotting issues so far detected. Yes, two people developed blood clots post-vaccine in Madeira, but these cases were ‘distinct’ from those reported in other countries, Infarmed president Rui Ivo told a press conference on Monday – and both people are recovering.
As World Health Organisation chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan has stressed, people suffer thromboembolic events every day: there is no more causal link between the 40 cases in 17 million people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine than there is in the 38 who developed clots out of 11.5 million jabbed with the Pfizer vaccine – for which the EU has this week pre-secured another 100 million doses.
Portuguese scientists close to completing work on alternative to Covid vaccine
With mounting evidence that vaccines are merely one of the tools for combating the Covid pandemic – not the ‘miracles’ people believed they might be (see story on page 12) – a group of Portuguese scientists has been working on an alternative that they say will ‘domesticate’ the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a way that we can all come to live with it.
Research coordinator Cecília Arraiano, working out of the Institute of Chemical and Biological Technology at the New University of Lisbon (ITQB NOVA), was a guest on SIC’s Monday night late news show and she described how the team has already managed to reduce the virus’ replication rate by 50%.
The patent for the drugs involved “will bring a lot of hope”, she said, stressing the formula will now need to be taken up by a large pharmaceutical company to carry out clinical tests leading to commercialisation.
“Our focus is on anyone who gets Covid-19 taking this remedy and ending up with a cold,” she said.
The doctor in genetics who heads ITQB NOVA’s Control of Gene Expression Lab went so far as to suggest the drug treatment would ensure more protection to ‘emerging variants’ than current vaccines.
Público carried an article on the research earlier this month, explaining that teams at the institute have managed to characterise an important protein for the replication of this coronavirus, nsp14, on a biochemical level and later made a computational model. This way they discovered the “parts” that can be used to silence the protein, transforming it as Cecília Arraiano gave the analogy “from a wolf to a dog”.
INIAV, the national institute of agrarian and veterinarian investigation, has been involved in the research which has largely been conducted by women.
Says Público, the teams have been dubbed the “RNA girls”. There is even a text online describing Cecília Arraiano as ‘Madame Ribonucleases’ (referring to her in-depth knowledge of the genetic material of RNA viruses).
In the widespread panic, however, focusing on AstraZeneca and the hundreds of thousands of people who are now ‘anxiously awaiting’ their second shot of the vaccine, very little of SIC’s interview with Cecília Arraiano has made it off the late-night news screens and into the wider media.
By NATASHA DONN