This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.
Canada’s decision to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in Canadians under 55 during a surging third wave and a slow vaccination rollout is a calculated risk.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) updated its guidance to provinces and territories against the use of the vaccine for younger Canadians on Monday, following reports of rare but potentially fatal blood clots in Europe connected to the shot.
Health Canada says the benefits of the vaccine to protect against COVID-19 still outweigh the potential risks, with more than 300,000 doses of the shot administered and no cases of the serious clotting condition, known as vaccine-induced prothrombotic immune thrombocytopenia (VIPIT), in Canada.
But the decision to restrict the use of one of four approved vaccines at a time when COVID-19 levels are rising again in Canada’s hardest hit provinces is a tough pill to swallow for some.
“It can be a very powerful tool when we’re at this stage of the pandemic where we’re talking about, in hotspots at least, the system getting to a point of potential collapse,” said Dr. Susy Hota, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.
“There are humans behind that story, and when you’re in a hospital where you’re seeing an exponential rise in the number of COVID-positive patients coming in, and your staff to help manage these patients is the same pool of staff — then those numbers aren’t adding up.”
But on an individual level, experts say the lack of data on the risk of VIPIT to Canadians from the AstraZeneca vaccine is concerning and NACI was right to err on the side of caution in order to avoid putting lives unnecessarily at risk.
Race between vaccines and variants
Ontario has more ICU admissions than at any other point in the pandemic, B.C. has had its highest single-day number of new cases to date, and Quebec saw its biggest one-day spike in almost two months as more transmissible variants are spreading rapidly across Canada.
The good news is that vaccines work; eight provinces and territories reported no new deaths in a single day this week, and the decision to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines in long-term care has led to a dramatic drop in deaths in residents.
The bad news is that the race between vaccines and variants is taking on new urgency; the majority of vulnerable Canadians are still unvaccinated and the third wave is hitting younger adults harder and showing no signs of slowing down.
“It’s so complicated, because I look at it as being two things: What is the absolute risk of this potentially related severe side effect versus the absolute risk of the disease?” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases physician and an associate professor at the University of Alberta faculty of medicine in Edmonton.
“The other consideration is, what is the public backlash to potential outcomes of any particular course of action?”
WATCH | AstraZeneca now only recommended for Canadians over 55:
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