I finished a health blog in early March with the message from England’s metaphor-loving deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam urging people not to throw away the chance of beating the coronavirus when we are 3-0 up by letting their guard down. 

Now having watched my favourite football team, West Ham United, almost throw away matches several times recently, I reckon such a sporting comparison is a perfect way to describe the danger of thinking the fight against COVID-19 is all-over.

I write as different parts of the United Kingdom are taking the first tentative steps to open-up the economy after months of severe lockdown and as we’re all looking forward to having our first professional haircut this year. But neighbouring countries, like France, are heading in the opposite direction as cases of the virus surge and hospital intensive care units are near breaking point with very sick patients. 

So, while clothes’ stores and English beer gardens prepare to serve their first customers of 2021 in-person, you only have to glance across the English Channel or North Sea to see countries closing schools and non-essential shops after taking their eye off the ball.

West Ham manager David Moyes with star striker Jessie Lingard Image:BBCsport

That’s why I’m so alarmed that the star-players in our anti-virus fight – the vaccines – are once again coming under suspicion.

Of course, it is sensible for medical and scientific experts to investigate a rare risk of blood clots associated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca and the other vaccines.

But, as I said in my last health blog: mixed messaging by governments around the world has sowed confusion and helped to spread the COVID-19 virus.

Keeping things in perspective

And let’s keep things in perspective. The UK had done over 18 million jabs using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by 14 March, 2021, and identified 30 cases of rare blood clot events, according to June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Even if all 30 of those incidents in the UK, which included seven deaths, were linked to the vaccine, or whether it was just a coincidence, it is still vitally importance to weigh-up the benefits of the vaccine in preventing coronavirus against any genuine side effects which have yet to be proved. The MHRA estimates that the vaccines saved around 6,300 lives between December and the end of February. 

Getting the AstraZeneca jab Image:WSJ

Some medical experts, including Marco Cavaleri, head of vaccine strategy at the European Medicines Agency, have perhaps muddied the waters, especially – after Cavaleri was reported telling an Italian newspaper that it is “increasingly difficult to state that there is no cause and effect relationship between vaccination with AstraZeneca and very rare cases of unusual blood clots”. 

But despite saying that, the European Medicines Agency, the EMA, continued to say the benefits of having the vaccine still outweigh the risks.

The focus is now turning to trying to discover whether any of these risks are greater in particular age groups or sex, with Professor Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist from Imperial College London and a key adviser during the first wave of the corona crisis in the UK, reminding us: “No vaccine, no medicine is risk free – it is always about a balancing equation against risk.”

Welcomed my first does

I couldn’t agree more. As a former bowel cancer patient, I  had to weigh-up the option of having post-surgery chemotherapy, which reduced my immune system to other diseases and meant self-isolating for six months, against having better long-time protection against the cancer returning.

So, I welcomed the chance to get my first dose of the AstraZeneca jab in February. 

But political leaders in some countries don’t seem so keen and the World Health Organisation has criticised the“unacceptably slow’ rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Europe, especially as new cases across the continental mainland continued to increase for the sixth consecutive week.

Without waiting for scientific experts to report their findings about the possible link of the Covid-19 vaccines to the rare cases of blood clots, some countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands are now only giving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to older people.

Political U-turns

That’s quite some U-turn by political leaders, such as France’s president Emmanuel Macron, who not so long ago said he thought the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was only “quasi-effective” in the over-65s. 

The French president is sometimes mocked for appearing to believe that he is some kind of Clark Kent Superman character who knows more about the virus than the scientific and medical experts because he has read so much about the subject.

Illustration of Emmanuel Macron by Liam Brazier for POLITICO

But with a third wave of COVID-19 now sweeping across France and other neighbouring countries, the UK and other countries should be careful in going forward.

Still fresh in our minds is the way British prime minister Boris Johnson so disastrously mishandled the UK government’s response to the first and second waves of the coronavirus last year, with late lockdowns and the totally irresponsible ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ bribes to get people into pubs and restaurants with cut-price meal deals subsidised by the government last summer, which was followed by a surge of coronavirus cases.

Perhaps we should listen more to the scientists and medical experts who know about the dangers of easing up before the final whistle is blown in this hard-fought match against the coronavirus.

So, stay safe, and if invited have the vaccine. We mustn’t lose the fight against the virus 3-4 in extra time, as Professor Jonathan Van-Tam might say!

  • After this blog was published, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) announced that as a precaution 18-29 year-olds without underlying health conditions would be offered the alternative approved Pfizer and Moderna vaccines when they are called to have the jab. Data published on 7 April 2021 shows 79 cases of rare blood clotting – involving 51 women and 28 men – among the 20 million people who had the AstraZeneca jab. A total of 19 people people subsequently died, with three being under the age of 30. But the MHRA chief executive, June Raine reiterated her message that the benefits of having the vaccine outweigh any risks as the number of cases of blood clots works out as four per million jabs administered, or 0.0004%, and a direct link between having the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clotting is still under investigation.

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