Biden administration says data on AstraZeneca vaccine 'encouraging,' but awaits FDA decision

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is optimistic about the results of a clinical trial showing the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca to be 79 percent effective at preventing symptomatic illness and 100 percent effective against severe disease requiring hospitalization.

White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt called the development “encouraging” during a pandemic-related press briefing on Monday morning. AstraZeneca had released the results of its trial, which enrolled nearly 35,000 people, mostly in the U.S., just hours earlier.

In a key finding, the trial found that the AstraZeneca vaccine did not cause people to develop blood clots. Last week, several European countries temporarily stopped using that vaccine because three dozen people developed blood clots and one person in Denmark died after the vaccine was administered.

“Obviously, it is great news for both the U.S. and the world, the more vaccines and the more supply that exists,” Slavitt added. The company is now expected to apply for emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, a process that could take several weeks.

Andy Slavitt
Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 response team. (White House via AP)

People skeptical of vaccines have expressed concern about the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines are being approved. Slavitt and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is advising President Biden on pandemic response, strove to reassure anyone skittish about the news coming out of Europe.

“We cannot and will not get ahead of the FDA,” Slavitt said, a seeming reference to the kind of freewheeling advice former President Donald Trump would regularly issue on everything from therapeutics to face masks.

“I can tell you, you can rest assured, that the FDA will put a great deal of scrutiny in every aspect of these data,” Fauci added.

Last week, a host of European countries, including Germany, Italy and France, stopped administering the vaccine out of growing fears that the shot caused “thrombotic events,” or blood clots. AstraZeneca said that across the European Union and United Kingdom, there were only 37 such incidents, which the company pointed out was a “much lower” rate than what could be normally expected in the general population.

Europe is somewhat behind in administering vaccinations than the U.S., where many states have moved beyond vaccinating the elderly and vulnerable. That means that in many parts of the country, it is younger and less vulnerable Americans who could be receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine.

What the Biden administration wants badly to avoid is the kind of confusion now taking place in Europe, where some countries have resumed using the AstraZeneca vaccine while others have not.

An AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine dose
Thomas Coex/Pool via Reuters

Public health officials on the continent have tried to be reassuring that the vaccine is safe. “The benefits of the vaccine in combating the still widespread threat of COVID-19 (which itself results in clotting problems and may be fatal) continue to outweigh the risk of side effects,” according to a preliminary review from the European Medicines Agency late last week.

Europe is now facing a new viral surge, at a time when people won’t happily countenance prolonged lockdowns once more. Yet asking people to take a vaccine they potentially fear could also backfire badly.

As the White House coronavirus task force held its briefing, video of partying beachgoers in Florida proliferated on cable news. Spring break represents a potential spark to reignite the coronavirus pandemic. So does a broader renewed propensity for travel, with airports no longer quite as empty as they were throughout the winter.

That forces the Biden administration to address social and scientific realities that don’t much align. As some people wait and worry about vaccines, others are eager to resume normal life. Both groups require guidance from public health officials.

“Believe me, I get it,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at Monday’s briefing. “But we must find the fortitude to hang in there for just a little bit longer.”


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