AstraZeneca vaccine's reputation damage 'killed hundreds of thousands', says top scientist

Links to rare blood clots caused confidence in the UK-made shot to plummet

People protest outside the AstraZeneca site in Macclesfield, north-west England. Prof Sir John Bell has said damage to the reputation of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine, with widely reported links to rare blood clotting, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Getty Images
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A University of Oxford scientist has blamed “bad behaviour” from politicians and figures in science for damaging the reputation of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine, causing a lack of confidence he says “probably killed hundreds of thousands of people”.

Prof Sir John Bell, who helped drive the vaccine’s development, said the effect of such behaviour was far-reaching and affected the worldwide battle against the coronavirus.

"They have damaged the reputation of the vaccine in a way that echoes around the rest of the world,” he told the BBC.

“I think bad behaviour from scientists and from politicians has probably killed hundreds of thousands of people – and that they cannot be proud of.”

The Oxford-made shot has suffered several blows to its reputation since being approved for use in the UK in December 2020.

British advisers recommended that people under 40 should be offered alternatives to the dose due to a link to rare blood clots, while fears over possible side effects prompted several European countries to suspend use of the vaccine.

Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Bulgaria and Iceland paused the use of the AstraZeneca shot.

Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Britain’s Reading University, said the blood clot issue had “been picked up by politicians who don’t know one side of a virus from another”.

“It’s like falling dominoes. You just need one or two [countries] to state there’s a problem and suspend use, and then a whole lot of others will fall in place. I don’t think there have been any independent decisions,” he said.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine was initially billed as a UK success story and called “Britain’s gift to the world”.

Scientists designed the shot to be cheap, easy to transport and be stored at fridge temperature.

Prof Bell said politicians’ promotion of the vaccine as a product of Britain added to the souring of relations with the EU.

“I don’t think it made with relations with Europe any easier that it was promoted as the British vaccine,” he said.

He was speaking to the BBC for its documentary, AstraZeneca: A Vaccine for the World, to be broadcast on the network on Tuesday at 9pm.

French President Emmanuel Macron was among the continent's most high-profile critics of the shot.

“We have to be realistic: the real problem with the AstraZeneca vaccine is that it doesn’t work in the way we expected,” he said. “We have very little information … but all the indications today are that it is quasi-ineffective for those over 65 years old.”

Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts accused AstraZeneca of being dishonest and arrogant about the effectiveness of its coronavirus vaccine and said the company had “over-promised and under-delivered”.

Last April the European Medicines Agency concluded that unusual blood clots with low blood platelets should be listed as "very rare side effects" of the shot.

The latest government data from December 2021 showed the UK had ordered 189 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, nearly double the 100 million AstraZeneca doses ordered.

As of January 26 this year, an estimated 25.6 million first doses of the Pfizer shot and 24.9 million first doses of the AstraZeneca drug had been administered. For second doses the figure for Pfizer was 22.5 million and 24.2 million for AstraZeneca.

However, amid scepticism abroad, the AstraZeneca vaccine has not played a major role in the UK’s booster campaign. The National Health Service website states that Pfizer and Moderna jabs will be offered as boosters.

"Some people may be offered a booster dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine if they cannot have the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine," it says.

The shot accounts for only 48,000 of the more than 37 million booster doses given in the UK.

Despite the easing of coronavirus restrictions, Covid-19 cases continue to rise is some areas.

Around three in 10 areas in Britain recorded a week-on-week rise in infection rates on Friday.

The five UK areas with the biggest week-on-week rises were Exeter, Hart, Forest of Dean, Guildford and North Devon.

Scotland recorded two more coronavirus deaths and another 5,593 positive cases of Covid-19 on Saturday, while the number hospital admissions fell.

There were 958 people in hospital on Saturday with Covid-19, down from 990 on Friday and from 1,291 on the same day last week.

The UK recorded 54,095 new infections and 75 deaths on Sunday.

Updated: February 07, 2022, 11:55 AM