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COVID-19

No European deaths directly tied to Covid-19 vaccine, say scientists

Scientists in Europe say evidence available so far does not incriminate the new anti-Covid vaccines in the numerous deaths of elderly and frail people shortly after they had received the coronavirus vaccine.

No European deaths directly tied to Covid-19 vaccine, say scientists
A Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine being prepared. Andy Buchanan / AFP

Health agencies stress however that the vast majority of post-vaccination fatalities were elderly, already vulnerable and often sick.

Here's a review of the situation:

Elderly, vulnerable

Norway sparked alarm last week when it reported the deaths of 33 of some 20,000 retirement home residents who had received a first shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

At least 13 of the fatalities were not only very elderly but also considered frail with serious ailments, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said.

While it noted that no analysis had yet been carried out on the causes of the deaths, it suggested that with the aged and vulnerable the normal side effects of vaccination such as fever or nausea could have contributed.

Outside Norway the news raised widespread concern and fed anti-vaccine scepticism, prompting the authorities to stress that no link had been established between the vaccine and post-jab deaths.

READ MORE: How has Norway reacted to elderly Covid vaccine deaths?

In France, of 800,000 people vaccinated, nine deaths of chronically ill residents of care and retirement homes were recorded by Friday.

The national medicines agency ANSM said that based on available evidence, “Nothing leads to the conclusion that the reported deaths were linked to vaccination.”

Other examples include 13 deaths of elderly people recorded in Sweden and seven in Iceland, all with no link established.

In Portugal, a care worker died two days after being inoculated but the justice ministry said a post-mortem found no direct link.

France's interior ministry on January 18 listed 71 “observations of death” in Europe of people who had the inoculation, but offered no further details.

Continued monitoring

The European Medicines Agency said that despite the deaths, “to date no specific concerns have been identified with Comirnaty”, the commercial name for the Pfizer shot.

The EMA noted that the authorities investigate fatalities to determine whether the vaccine was responsible.

National and European agencies check any problems with vaccinations reported by health professionals, pharmaceutical firms and patients themselves.

For the moment, the number and type of deaths among those vaccinated are not considered abnormal, with no cause-and-effect relationship identified.

In many countries — such as France, Norway, Britain and Spain — the frail and elderly are first in line for vaccinations.

“It is not unexpected that some of these people may naturally fall ill due to their age or underlying conditions shortly after being vaccinated, without the vaccine playing any role in that,” the UK medicines regulator MHRA said.

Transparency, reassurance 

The deaths are a highly sensitive issue, and approaches to informing the public vary.

France and some Nordic countries have reported post-vaccination deaths and detailed the potential side effects of the jabs even if no link has been established.

But Britain's MHRA said it would make a statement at a later date, possibly seeking to avoid spreading alarm.

“We will publish details of all suspected reactions reported in association with approved Covid-19 vaccines, along with our assessment of the data on a regular basis in the future,” it said.

In any event, European health officials say the deaths do not call into question the safety of the vaccines.

Norway has not changed its vaccination rollout, even if it has recommended doctors consider the overall health of the most frail before giving them the jab, the policy of numerous other countries.

Globally, more than 60 million doses have been received in at least 64 countries or territories, according to an AFP tally on Saturday.

For members

HEALTH

EXPLAINED: What is monkeypox and what is Switzerland doing about it?

Switzerland has reported its first monkeypox patient on Saturday, but with over 80 cases across the world to date, Swiss officials are preparing to handle the eventual increase in the number of infections.

EXPLAINED: What is monkeypox and what is Switzerland doing about it?

The first case so far was detected in Bern in a person who was “exposed to the virus abroad”, according to the statement by cantonal officials, who did not specify in which country the patient could have been infected.

The traveller is receiving outpatient treatment and self-isolating. Close contacts have been informed through contact tracing.

READ MORE: Switzerland confirms first monkeypox case

While Swiss health officials currently assess the risk of contracting monkeypox as low outside rural areas of Central and West Africa, “the epidemiological data is still limited”, said Céline Gardiol, head of the vaccination section at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).

“However, it can be assumed that more infections can also occur here, as is the case in other countries”, she added.

What measures are Swiss health authorities taking?

For the time being, “the epidemiological situation is being monitored in cooperation with international health authorities and experts, according to FOPH’s vice-president Linda Nartey.

FOPH is also recommending that the cantons carry out contact tracing in proven cases and isolate those who test positive — all of which has an eerie sense of déjà-vu.

“The cantonal systems are in place and ready to be deployed. Quarantines are not currently planned”.

There is no specific vaccine against monkeypox, tough first- and second-generation smallpox vaccines provided effective protection. But they were discontinued in 1972 when the World Health Organisation declared that the disease was successfully eradicated.

There is now also a third-generation smallpox vaccine that is approved for adults in Europe but not yet in Switzerland, as the drug regulatory body, Swissmedic, has not received any approval request from the manufacturers.

However, Narty said Switzerland is examining the possibility of buying these vaccines.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox, Affenpocken in German, vaiolo delle scimmie in Italian and variole du singe in French is a zoonotic virus (a virus spread from animals to humans) that most often occurs in areas of tropical rainforest in Central and West Africa.

However, it is occasionally found in other regions, and cases have recently been discovered in Europe, North America, and Australia.

The name monkeypox originates from the initial discovery of the virus in monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958, according to WHO. The first human case was identified in a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970.

Monkeypox virus is transmitted from one person to another by close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials such as bedding. The incubation period of monkeypox is usually from 6 to 13 days but can range from 5 to 21 days.

People can also be infected through contact with the lesions of the skin, blood, tissues, or excretions of infected animals (mainly rodents) and by handling the meat of sick animals.

The disease is not known to be sexually transmitted. Still, close contact between people during sex can make the transmission of the virus easier.

How contagious and dangerous is monkeypox ?

According to FOPH, immunocompromised people, as well as children and young adults who have become infected seem to have a higher risk of a severe course of the disease, whose symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and chickenpox-like skin rash.

Most people affected by the disease recover within a few weeks.

It takes a close, direct contact with the infected person, for instance by touching skin lesions, to become contaminated. Infectious disease specialist Jan Fehr confirmed that monkeypox virus is not transmitted through air, like coronavirus.

Many of the cases presented are in men who have sexual relations with other men and health authorities have asked for extra care and are studying current cases.

And this brings is to the question that is likely on everyone’s mind right now.

Is monkeypox as contagious as Covid and will there be another pandemic?

“Based on what is known about the virus, one can assume that it is less transmissible than the coronavirus”, Nartey pointed out.

She added that at the moment there is no indication of another pandemic emerging in Switzerland or elsewhere.

However, the evolution of the disease must be closely observed, she said.

“We have to watch the outbreaks and in each case carry out contact tracing immediately to quickly interrupt any transmission chains”.

Tracing became widespread during the Covid pandemic to identify, and quarantine, people who were in contact with an infected person.

READ MORE: Q&A: How will Switzerland’s coronavirus tracing app work?

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