Has Australia become more frightened of COVID-19 vaccines than of the disease itself?
The numbers say that we are leaning that way: More than half of Australians aged over 50 are reportedly unwilling to get the AstraZeneca vaccine or the Pfizer jab.
This is according to a Guardian Essential poll, in which “a significant increase in those who said they would never get vaccinated against COVID-19, up from 12 per cent to 16 per cent over the past six weeks”.
One in six people “can now be described as vaccine hesitant” – the highest it’s been since COVID-19 vaccines started rolling out across the world.
Meanwhile, the virus cannot be ignored.
New research says: “It has become clear that many survivors – even those who had mild cases – continue to manage a variety of health problems long after the initial infection should have resolved.”
Not scary enough for you?
The Washington University School of Medicine study showed that “COVID-19 survivors – including those not sick enough to be hospitalised – have an increased risk of death in the six months following diagnosis with the virus.”
The only proven protection against death is getting vaccinated. The AstraZeneca vaccine has proven itself to that end, successfully immunising tens of millions of people.
The main driver of this hesitancy?
The trouble began with reports of “extremely rare blood clots” in people receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine – the jab that most Australians, at that time, were to get.
An investigation by UK and EU health regulators, written up in the British Medical Journal, concluded the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks.
Out of an abundance of caution, the UK and EU then advised that people under 30 should be offered an alternative to AstraZeneca where possible.
This wasn’t an edict. It was a “preference”.
The same day the BMJ article was published three weeks ago, the Australian government dropped a bombshell.
There has been an urgent “recalibration” of the vaccine strategy: People under the age of 50 were advised not to have the AstraZeneca vaccine, because they were in the age group deemed to be at greater risk of developing those blood clots.
Again, this wasn’t a rule, but a preference. But the Australian public largely didn’t see it that way.
Last week, the health department secretary Brendan Murphy told a Senate committee the government’s shock announcement had caused the spike in vaccine hesitancy.
So what about these blood clots?
The syndrome is called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia – otherwise called blood clots with low platelets.
On Tuesday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that new analysis had found that the incidence of the “clotting syndrome following the AstraZeneca vaccine at around 20 cases in every million for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s”.
But the rate halves to about “10 cases in every million for those in their 50s and 60s, and then halves again to about five cases in every million for those aged 70 and above”.
How many of those people will die?
Victoria’s deputy chief health officer Allen Cheng told the Herald that one in four cases is fatal.
A grim reality check
The Washington University School of Medicine researchers followed the long-term recovery of 87,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly five million control patients in a US database.
The investigators found that, after patients had survived the first 30 days of illness, they had an almost “60 per cent increased risk of death over the following six months compared with the general population”.
The researchers confirmed that, despite being initially a respiratory virus, long term COVID-19 can affect nearly every organ system in the body.
Among patients who were ill enough to be hospitalised with COVID-19 and who survived beyond the first 30 days of illness, there were “29 excess deaths per 1000 patients over the following six months”, compared with deaths in the general population.
At the six-month mark of recovery, excess deaths among all COVID-19 survivors – including those with mild cases – were estimated at eight per 1000 patients.
It’s good to remember that it was mainly older people who died.
As for the blood clots, five people per one million would die – nearly all of them under 50.
And for those who think the Pfizer jab is superior – some news.
On Thursday, Professor Greg Dore of the Kirby Institute tweeted this:
Extensive data from the UK found that the AstraZeneca was on par with the Pfizer.
“NO DIFFERENCE,” he wrote.
Prevention of hospitalisation or severe illness: 85-90 per cent.
Prevention of infection: 65-70 per cent.
Reduction infectiousness in breakthrough cases: 45-50 per cent.