Health experts have sought to allay concerns over the use of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine in Malaysia’s immunisation programme, even as Khairy Jamaluddin, the minister in charge of the vaccination rollout, is expected to announce the result of further discussions with health authorities on the issue amid public concern over potential side effects.
In a press conference on Monday, Health Minister Dr Adham Baba had said that the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with the University of Oxford, was both safe and effective and would be used on senior citizens aged 60 and above.
He said a thorough assessment of the vaccine, which has been dogged by controversy including over the development of blood clots in a small number of recipients, had found that its benefits outweigh any disadvantages.
His announcement was met with expressions of public concern, especially in light of the move by some countries including Denmark to pause or completely drop the use of AstraZeneca jabs in their vaccination programmes.
But health experts who spoke to MalaysiaNow voiced their support of the health ministry’s decision.
“The NPRA has decided that both the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines are safe for use.”
Azrul Mohd Khalib, CEO of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy, said he was confident in the decision by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA) to green light use of the jab in Malaysia.
He added that senior citizens should be vaccinated, especially if they live with chronic illnesses.
“The NPRA has decided that both the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines are safe for use.
“This is the agency that has been entrusted with determining whether or not a drug or pharmaceutical product can be safely used in Malaysia,” he said.
With public anxiety still high, though, Khairy who is science, technology and innovation minister, said yesterday that he would hold further talks with Adham on the issue.
“I have to take into account the opinion of the people who are disturbed by this. We don’t want the vaccine to jeopardise the immunisation programme,” he said.
In general, Azrul said, much of the concern and stigma associated with vaccines is based on a lack of information or incomplete understanding of the matter.
“It is important for people to know that this is a safe and effective vaccine.
“The odds are actually a lot higher of getting blood clots from taking contraceptive pills as opposed to taking this vaccine,” he said.
The AstraZeneca vaccine was hailed as a game-changer in January when it was first rolled out due to its affordability and the fact that it does not require very cold temperatures for storage like the ones from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
“We need to emphasise that those most at risk of adverse events are not the elderly or vulnerable groups.”
It currently forms the backbone of the Covax scheme, which ensures that poorer countries can access doses, with donors covering the cost.
Dr Subramaniam Muniandy, president of the Malaysian Medical Association, acknowledged cases of blood clots reported in the UK and Europe among patients given the AstraZeneca jab.
However, he said adverse reactions from the vaccine are more common among young people, especially women.
“We need to emphasise that those most at risk of adverse events are not the elderly or vulnerable groups. They are the young,” he told MalaysiaNow, adding that even in such cases, the chances of developing a negative reaction are very small.
“This is why some countries are not giving AstraZeneca to those below 55.”
In any case, he said, doctors in Malaysia are now aware of the potential conditions that could arise and know how to diagnose and treat such cases quickly and with licensed drugs that are locally available.
Subramaniam also pointed out that Malaysia is still short on vaccines, saying it is better to use every available resource in the face of the pandemic.
However, he urged the government to explain clearly the minimal risks accompanying the shots and the benefits to the people due to public anxiety over the matter.
“The government should use various channels of communication to explain and clarify the very minimal risks compared to the benefits.
“Right now, people might not trade real but minuscule risks for theoretical benefits,” he said.
Some 91 countries have already approved use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in their immunisation programmes.
International health and regulatory agencies including the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency have repeatedly said that the benefits of being vaccinated with AstraZeneca outweigh the risks, including of getting infected with Covid-19.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Azrul reiterated his confidence in the health ministry’s inclusion of AstraZeneca in its portfolio of vaccines.
“Personally, if the AstraZeneca vaccine were to be offered to me, I would be willing to take it,” he said.