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Why Europe Blundered by Placing AstraZeneca's COVID Vaccine on Hold

By Keith Speights and Brian Orelli, PhD - Mar 24, 2021 at 6:31AM

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Decisions appear to have been made too hastily.

It's been two steps forward, one step back for AstraZeneca's (AZN 2.59%) European launch of its COVID-19 vaccine. Recently, several European Union countries temporarily placed a hold on the distribution of the vaccine because of concerns about blood clotting. In this Motley Fool Live video recorded on March 17, Motley Fool contributors Keith Speights and Brian Orelli discuss why European countries appear to have blundered by being so quick to halt the rollout of AstraZeneca's vaccine.

Keith Speights: Several European countries have put a hold on the administration of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine. The issue is that they have concerns about individuals receiving the vaccine developing blood clots. So Germany became the latest country to suspend distribution of the vaccine. Do you think AstraZeneca's COVID vaccine is doomed to flop as a result of all of this? Or do you expect the company is going to be able to move past these current issues?

Brian Orelli: You're going to find rare events when you vaccinate millions of people. If you just look at millions of people, they're going to have rare events regardless of whether they get vaccinated or not. So there's going to be some people who get rare events after they get vaccinated, and they were going to probably get that rare event regardless of whether they got vaccinated.

So AstraZeneca found 15 reports of cases of deep vein thrombosis and 22 cases of pulmonary embolisms as of the data says of March 8, and that was among 17 million vaccinated people. Their calculations say that that's less than would be expected in the general population if you just took 17 million random people and looked at how many they would have out after looking at a certain number of time.

I'm a little surprised that regulatory authorities acted so irrationally, in my opinion. I think it probably has something to do with perception. So they want to make sure that if these vaccines were developed so quickly, they want to make people feel that they are safe. So maybe they are being overly cautious here, even if they're fairly convinced that the vaccines aren't causing the problem. They can go ahead and pause, and do a more thorough investigation, and then come up with the same conclusion that their 99% hunch had already led them to.

Speights: Yeah, the European Medicines Agency came out and stated, look, this vaccine is safe. I think there's maybe a little bit of politics going on here, but I think you're right. I think definitely there's maybe an ultra-conservative approach here of if there are any problems, let's halt. It's actually coming out at a really bad time because there's another surge of COVID-19 cases in Europe right now. To be suspending administration of AstraZeneca's vaccine during this time could be problematic for the region. So from listening to what you just said, Brian, your take is AstraZeneca is probably going to sail through this, right?

Orelli: Yeah, there will just be a slight delay. As you said, it's probably a little bit of politics with the AstraZeneca coming out of the U.K, then Brexit. So that could actually be part of the reason why they are being more cautious.

Speights: Yeah, and from an investing standpoint, AstraZeneca has committed to providing their vaccine at cost during the pandemic at least. So this really isn't having an impact on the company from a purely financial standpoint, at least. At this point, if these issues became more pronounced and there were studies that show there really were problems, and that could be a problem for AstraZeneca over the long term.

Orelli: Yeah, even if it causes perception, even if there aren't actually problems that could cause theoretical problems. Once we're at supply, where supply is outreaching demand, then I think that now brand might be a little more important. Right now, you can't even get to pick your vaccine, but at some point, I imagine you will be able to pick your vaccine. So I think at that point, perception of safety is probably important for each individual brand.

Speights: I think AstraZeneca might be suffering already from a perception problem. Their efficacy was quite lower in their earlier results anyway than any of the other vaccines that have received Emergency Use Authorization, at least the two-dose regimens. So I think they may have a harder time, like you said, when it gets to that point where it's more competitive in the marketplace, and you can choose which vaccine you get. AstraZeneca could have some challenges on its hands.

Brian Orelli: I agree completely.

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