NST Leader: Shots of discontent

THE line between the known and the unknown, even in medicine, is often fuzzy. When Covid-19, first known as pneumonia of unknown origin, reared its ugly head in China in December 2019, medicine had no cure for it.

But it came rather quickly. Within months, vaccines hit the assembly lines, one after another. We shall not get into the debate on whether the rush was motivated by compassion or commerce. The AstraZeneca vaccine — developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford and the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca — was one of those ahead of the queue.

Almost immediately — in March 2021 — it was banned in several countries in Europe, after Norway's medical regulator went public with four cases of blood clotting. Not very different from the class action case against AstraZeneca now coursing through the British court.

Soon after, it was needle as usual following the European Medicines Agency's announcement that the vaccine was safe. The World Health Organisation followed suit. But still, there continued to be a disturbing number of people who were vaccine hesitant in many countries — at least five per cent of the population if not more — six months into the pandemic.

By then Covid-19 had killed four million people and infected 185.5 million others worldwide. Up to April 13 — the date many countries ceased reporting Covid-19 cases— the global death toll was 7,010,681, according to Worldometer, a coronavirus tracker.

Why are there so many people around the world still refusing jabs? The answer lies in the way the vaccines were handled by the pharmaceutical companies and governments. But first a contextual caution.

Neither China, where it all started, nor the rest of the world, where the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19 spread to, had a clue of what was going on. It was called a novel coronavirus for a reason. The world was in a global emergency.

The governments wanted to contain the virus and so they bought into the science of the pharmaceutical companies which developed those vaccines. There were obviously a few reasons why people were reluctant to take the jabs  — the class action case against AstraZeneca being one — but the main one was lack of transparency by the vaccine manufacturers and governments that gave their stamp of approval for the jabs. Both could have done better.

Start with vaccine manufacturers. There isn't a cure in the world of medicine that has no side effects. People accept this. If the vaccine manufacturers had been open about the side effects, especially the adverse ones, people would be in a position to make an educated choice based on their medical history. Most vaccine manufacturers have not been open enough.

A few have underplayed the adverse effects. What is worse, some even have forced governments to sign expansive indemnity agreements, meaning if one who is vaccinated suffers an adverse effect and is successful in court, the government would foot the bill, not the company.

In an emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic, it is Hobson's choice for any government. The Health Ministry says it will provide details of adverse effects of all Covid-19 vaccines. A welcome move, though a little late in the day.

Vaccine manufacturers, too, must do the same without being asked. Ethical companies will do that with no hesitation.

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