After safety review, Health Canada says people shouldn’t hesitate to get AstraZeneca vaccine

Following reports of rare blood clotting events among some who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine, Health Canada officials said today they still believe the product is safe — and Canadians should have no qualms about rolling up their sleeves for it when the time comes.

Speaking to reporters at a technical briefing, Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, said there is a “very low risk” that some patients could develop blood clotting with low platelets following vaccination.

Sharma said that with a fourth wave of COVID-19 raging — and with the risk of hospitalization and death still much greater than the risk of developing clots following an AstraZeneca shot — the benefits of this vaccine clearly outweigh any risks.

“Get whatever vaccine is available to you. It’s that simple. The longer you wait to get vaccinated, the longer you’re not protected,” Sharma said. “We know the risks of getting these side effects from the vaccine are very rare.”

COVID clotting risk far higher, Sharma says

Pointing to evidence from the U.K., where the AstraZeneca shot has been administered 20 million times, Sharma said the chance of developing these clots is roughly 1 in 250,000.

While there are other numbers circulating about the frequency of these clots, Canada is relying on the British data because the U.K. has a robust safety monitoring system and has administered a lot of shots, Sharma said.

Meanwhile, Sharma said, the odds of developing a “regular” clot — and not this rare, vaccine-induced thrombocytopenia (VIPIT) in people with low platelets — are 1 in 5 for people hospitalized with COVID-19.

The risk of a woman between the ages of 15 and 45 developing any sort of blood clot is 1 in 3,300. If they take birth control, the odds are 1 in 1,600. If a woman is pregnant, the risk is 1 in 300, Sharma said.

“It is difficult to wrap your head around these abstract numbers and relative risks. We understand that,” Sharma said. “The risk of regular clots with COVID is much, much higher and it’s much, much higher than having this very severe clot.”

Health Canada still has not definitively associated the AstraZeneca vaccine with these clots. Sharma said only that the shot was “probably” the reason why some people developed this condition.

WATCH: Health Canada’s Dr. Supriya Sharma on the AstraZeneca vaccine

Dr. Supriya Sharma tells reporters the COVID threat is “real” and outweighs rare instances of blood clots reported with the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson/Janssen vaccines. 1:39

Sharma said the department has updated the product label to warn would-be patients about the risk of developing these clots. Patients who receive the shot will be told to look out for symptoms — severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath.

Sharma said that if regulators conclude at any time that the risks of the AstraZeneca shot outweigh its benefits, Health Canada won’t hesitate to pull the vaccine’s authorization.

She said it’s not unusual for such very rare side effects to emerge when a vaccine has been given to such large numbers of people.

One woman in Quebec has developed clots after receiving the Covishield product, a biologically identical version of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India.

In approving the shot in late February, Health Canada regulators authorized the shot for all adults 18 and over.

Sharma said Health Canada still believes that the shot can be safely deployed in all adults regardless of age. However, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has recommended that provinces restrict access to adults over the age of 55 — for now.

Sharma said NACI is reviewing more real-world data now and could update its guidelines.

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