Norway flags vaccine risk in the very old
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Norway flags vaccine risk in the very old

23 deaths being investigated, as regulators start to learn more about side effects

A healthcare worker treats a Covid-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Oslo University Hospital Rikshospitalet in the Norwegian capital on Nov 27. (Photo: NTB/Jil Yngland via Reuters)
A healthcare worker treats a Covid-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Oslo University Hospital Rikshospitalet in the Norwegian capital on Nov 27. (Photo: NTB/Jil Yngland via Reuters)

Covid-19 vaccines may be too risky for the very old, frail and terminally ill, say health regulators in Norway, where 23 people have died shortly after receiving their first shot.

The statement released in Oslo is the most cautious yet from a European health authority as countries assess the real-world side effects of the first shots to gain approval.

Norwegian officials said autopsies have been conducted so far on 13 of 23 people who died a short time after receiving their first dose of the vaccine. The results suggested that common side effects may have contributed to severe reactions in frail, elderly people, according to the Norwegian Medicines Agency.

“For those with the most severe frailty, even relatively mild vaccine side effects can have serious consequences,” the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said on Friday.

“For those who have a very short remaining life span anyway, the benefit of the vaccine may be marginal or irrelevant.”

The recommendation does not mean that younger, healthier people should avoid being vaccinated. But it’s an early indication of what to watch as countries begin to issue safety monitoring reports on the vaccines.

Emer Cooke, the new head of the European Medicines Agency, has said that tracking the safety of Covid vaccines, especially those relying on novel technologies such as messenger RNA, would be one of the biggest challenges once shots are rolled out widely.

Pfizer and BioNTech are working with the Norwegian regulator to investigate the deaths in Norway, Pfizer said in an e-mailed statement. The agency found that “the number of incidents so far is not alarming, and in line with expectations”, Pfizer said.

Allergic reactions have been uncommon so far. In the United States, authorities reported 21 cases of severe allergic reactions from Dec 14-23 after administration of about 1.9 million initial doses of the vaccine developed by US-based Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. That’s an incidence of 11.1 cases per million doses, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though both Covid-19 vaccines approved so far in Europe were tested in tens of thousands of people — including volunteers in their late 80s and 90s — the average trial participant was in his or her early 50s. The first people to be immunised in many places have been older than that as countries rush to inoculate nursing-home residents at high risk from the virus.

Norway has given at least one dose to about 33,000 people, focusing on those considered to be most at risk if they contract the virus, including the elderly. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine approved late last year has been used most broadly, with a similar shot from Moderna approved earlier this month also now being administered.

Of 29 cases of potential side effects investigated by Norwegian authorities, almost three-quarters were in people aged 80 or older, the regulator said in a Jan 14 report.

In France, one frail patient died in a care home two hours after being vaccinated, but authorities said given the patient’s previous medical history there is no indication the death was linked to the vaccine. The French pharmaceutical safety agency on Thursday reported four cases of severe allergic reactions and two incidents of irregular heartbeat after vaccination.

The first Europe-wide safety report on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will probably be published at the end of January, the regulator’s key medicines committee said on Friday. Vaccine makers are required to submit data monthly.

In the United Kingdom, which has carried out more immunisations per capita than anywhere else in Europe, authorities will assess safety data and plan to publish details of suspected reactions “on a regular basis”, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said, without giving a date.

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