European Medicines Agency says vaccine is safe after an investigation

Most Bhutanese are ready for the vaccine but a significant minority opt out for now

With around a week left for the mass COVID-19 vaccination in the country and the government all set with the roll out plan some vaccine hesitancy has crept in.

Though the majority are for the vaccine some have come out openly on social media to say they will not be taking the vaccine.

Vaccine hesitancy

Though around 536,000 are eligible for the vaccine only 495,141 have registered for it as of 23rd March 2021.

The Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering said that around 7,000 of these registered people have indicated that they will not take the vaccine or are hesitant about it. The actual number of those who plan to not take the vaccine may be much higher given that a large number are yet to register.

An additional problem is that while a family member may have registered several family members and said yes to the vaccine those may not exactly reflect the thoughts of the family member or of how minds have changed.

While there has always been some vaccine hesitancy in Bhutan from day one, its ranks swelled in the last two weeks after several European countries and others paused its roll out over concerns that it may be linked to a rare blood clot in the brain.

It all started on 11th March when Denmark became the first country to suspend the vaccine concerned over some reports of a small number of people who got rare blood clots after getting the Astra Zeneca vaccine jab. This was soon followed by Iceland, Norway and Thailand.

It soon turned into an avalanche as a host of countries like Sweden, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Bosnia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia, Indonesia, Congo and Bulgaria also pushed the pause button.

The international news of these suspensions though without any clear scientific link or evidence strengthened fears and doubts in Bhutan.

But the numbers were also nothing to be scared about as out of 17 million shots only 40 blood clotting events had been reported.

WHO says vaccinations should continue

The World Health Organization (WHO) in a statement on 17th March said thromboembolic events are known to occur frequently and that venous thromboembolism is the third most common cardiovascular disease globally. 

WHO said that in extensive vaccination campaigns, it is routine for countries to signal potential adverse events following immunization. This does not necessarily mean that the events are linked to vaccination itself, but it is good practice to investigate them.

WHO said it is in regular contact with the European Medicines Agency and regulators around the world for the latest information on COVID-19 vaccine safety. 

It said at this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue. 

EMA says all safe

However, in an important boost for the vaccine the European Medicines Agency Chief Emer Cooke said on 18th March that after an investigation into the AstraZeneca jab, its “Committee has come to a clear scientific conclusion: this is a safe and effective vaccine”.

“The committee also concluded that the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of thromboembolic events or blood clots,” she added.

However, the agency said it “cannot rule out definitively” a link to a rare clotting disorder.  

The UK health regulator also said there were no links between blood clots and the  vaccine. 

Following this announcement, the AFP reported that many European countries said they would soon resume vaccinations, including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

Some local thoughts

The Bhutanese talked to the public on the thoughts of taking in vaccine, and some of them looked confused and worried and said they registered for the vaccine before the news of blood clots and suspension by some countries.

Dawa, 44, who works in a private sector in Thimphu said he has registered for the COVID-19 vaccine and he will take a jab. He said he does fear the outcome but is taking it in a positive way.

He said it takes 10 to 15 years to introduce a new vaccine while this one came up within a year so it is quite worrisome. He said every individual’s body is different so one never knows but nevertheless, more than the fear of the side effect of the vaccine, COVID-19 has made his daily life upside down. “Keeping fear aside, I am going to get myself vaccinated,” said Dawa.

“The vaccine is a much needed defense against COVID-19. I look forward to getting it,” said Karma, a civil servant. He said the safety of the vaccine, has been tested by the expats and the international news reported that the cause of death is not from the vaccine shot but an underlying issue that the person had.

One person requesting anonymity said he will vaccinate but he will not ask his parents to go for it. He said since his parents are pre-diabetic patients and they are in their late 50s, he is a bit worried. “This is what I have been thinking but it will also depend on my parents”, he said.

Sushma Rai, 30 who runs a restaurant in Thimphu said the vaccine is to protect both her and her customers. She said, everyday a large number of people come to her restaurant and it will be difficult if she doesn’t take a vaccine. She said the pandemic has made her go through rough patches and losses and she would definitely take the vaccination. She said she is afraid but it is for the safety of everyone.

Other people The Bhutanese talked to say they will vaccinate. Though all of them expressed the fear of the side effects, they said that taking a risk is the only option.

However, the Ministry of Health’s Transparency Advisory Group members who are the technical experts did not have much to say apart from pointing out that they are really busy.

Lyonchhen clarifies

The Prime Minister had to come on BBS himself to clarify on the recent international reports on Astra Zeneca vaccine.

The Prime Minister said of the around 30 mn COVID-19 (Astra Zeneca) vaccine doses there has been no proven deaths linked to it.

He said some countries have stopped it due to blood clotting but there is no proven link and some of these countries have restarted it after studies showing no link between the vaccine and blood clotting. He said blood clotting is naturally there in people and especially the elderly or those with lifestyle diseases.

Lyonchhen said when people take the vaccine the advantage is that there is more than a 70 percent chance to never get the virus. “Even if you get the virus then it will prevent severe COVID-19 and also reduce the chances of infecting others,” said the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister requested the public to take the COVID-19 vaccine and if one does not take the vaccine then one will have to undergo the 7-day quarantine when travelling from a high risk area to a low risk area. One may also be required to undertake quarantine in foreign countries while travelling there. He said Bhutanese travelling abroad will also be asked for vaccine certificates by foreign countries.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 vaccination will be rolled out in the country starting March 27, 2021 at 9 am during which the Tendrel is also good. The auspicious date is determined in consultation with the Zhung Dratshang. The second consignment of vaccine comprising 400,000 doses arrived from India on March 22. Three days Sangay Menlha (Medicine Buddha) drupchen will be conducted before the nationwide rollout.

During the time of vaccination, people are requested not to travel between Dzongkhags for one week. However, people can travel within the Dzongkhags and also can take the vaccination in any Dzongkhag or any Gewog.

The government plans to finish the mass vaccination for all within 10 to 11 days and the second dose will be given 8 to 12 weeks later to ensure maximum protection.

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