COVID-19, Opinion

Did AstraZeneca Overlook Something With Its COVID-19 Vaccine?

The Ford Edsel was a good car. It was also one of the most significant business failures in history.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is on the fast-track to becoming the Edsel of the pandemic age.

Seemingly not a day goes by when there isn’t another damning report about the product, each one worse than the last.

While the AstraZeneca vaccine is, by all conditions (and according to regulators worldwide), efficacious and safe, public confidence is crumbling.

The Edsel, manufactured by Ford, was an epic failure for many reasons, but there were two principal ones: arrogance and poor communication.

AstraZeneca seems to have embraced both in spades. Like the Edsel, the wounds are all self-inflicted.

We have high expectations for vaccines. They are the golden ticket out of the pandemic. AstraZeneca, in particular, has been promised to the developing world at a low cost.

AstraZeneca got off to a rocky start. Despite being one of the most anticipated in history, its clinical trial was beset by technical problems that were amateurish.

First, doses were administered improperly to some study participants. Then the trial was halted for weeks after one person in the trial died, without proper explanations that hiccups such as these are typical.

When the trial results were released, the absolute debacle began. 

Efficacy was 62 percent, much worse than the 95-per-cent efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that launched earlier.

The company’s muddled reporting of results left the impression that the two-shot AstraZeneca vaccine worked better if people received only one shot and that it didn’t work in people older than 65. (Neither of these things was true, but, again, communication was abysmal.)

Then the real-world issues arose. Some countries (including Canada) said the vaccine should not be administered to people older than 65 because of insufficient data, not because it was unsafe. Those orders were reversed quickly, but in the public mind, the vaccine was tainted.

Then there were indications the AstraZeneca vaccine didn’t work against the B1351 variant, which originated in South Africa.

Then the most wounding issue of all: blood clots. Regulators in Europe spotted reports of unusual blood clots, particularly in younger women. A couple of dozen countries halted the AstraZeneca vaccine’s use; most resumed its use days later but left the company with another black eye.

Almost all regulators worldwide agree on one thing: While there was a theoretical risk of a rare clotting event, the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risk. They also stress the risk of clotting is much greater from COVID-19 than from the vaccine.

All this is also occurring under a political backdrop. AstraZeneca has given Britain priority access to the vaccine, infuriating the European Union, which has now halted Britain’s shipments. European countries are simultaneously bad-mouthing the vaccine and clamoring to get more of it. 

No wonder the public is confused.

Another juicy political angle is that the AstraZeneca vaccine has not been approved in the United States because it hasn’t submitted a request. There are millions of doses sitting in AstraZeneca’s U.S. plant, some of which Canada will “borrow.”

Earlier this week, though, it published a press release disclosing a U.S. trial found its vaccine was 79 percent effective (much better than the 62 percent in an earlier test). No sooner had the ink dried than the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases rebuked the company for publishing outdated, misleading data. Again, the company shot itself in the foot.

The net result of all this, as the Economist so deftly put it, is “the public is spooked.”

It baffles the mind that a giant pharmaceutical company, whose chief executive officer Pascal Soriot was paid US$21.4-million last year, could so monumentally screw up such a critical rollout, especially given the fact the vaccine works well. This was all so avoidable.

The question now is: What should we do about this Edsel-like vaccine?

Do we continue using it even though the abysmal PR is undermining trust in vaccines overall? Will shipping this product to the developing world make coronavirus vaccination look like a giant Tuskegee experiment? Or do we cut our losses and stop using the cursed AstraZeneca vaccine altogether, which would slow the global vaccination effort considerably and maybe do nothing to subdue distrust?

It’s a dilemma for the ages.

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