Fear and Loathing Over AstraZeneca Vaccine as Italy Braces for Deadly Third Wave

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Alessandra Tarantino/AP

ROME—At Rome’s Termini train station where the AstraZeneca vaccine is being administered to residents who live in the city center, several people were waiting for their appointments outside a massive red “decontamination” station Friday morning. “I'm considering canceling,” Maria Grazia Bertucci, a school teacher who is among those qualified to receive the vaccine, told The Daily Beast. “They say it is safe, but I’m sure that’s what they told the people who died, too.”

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An elderly man standing next to her encouraged her to go ahead, telling her COVID-19 will kill her before the vaccine will. Others soon joined the conversation about which was riskier—the disease or its prevention. Soon everyone was breaking the social distancing regulations by moving off their designated dots on the floor and arguing about whether to walk through the big red decontamination box or not. Two women got on the phone worriedly. One man walked away, clearly deciding not to go through with it.

The station attendant checking temperatures said it had been like that since yesterday. “How do you calm fears when the vaccine they are about to get shot into their arm could be a killer dose,” he said. “I’m glad I got mine last month and survived.”

Just when Italy needs the panacea of successful vaccines—with a third wave now emerging—fear looms large at vaccine centers across the country.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has already suffered a patchy rollout in Europe but the situation is now much graver with at least 7 countries bringing in partial suspensions on the vaccine’s distribution and five deaths potentially tied to the vaccine across Europe under investigation. There is no evidence that the vaccine is dangerous.

Stefano Paterno, a healthy 43-year-old Navy officer was excited to finally get his AstraZeneca vaccine at his naval base in Sicily last week, according to his family. So was Davide Villa, 50, a police officer who got his shot two weeks ago. As members of the security forces, they both qualified for the AstraZeneca shot, which they were both given from the same batch: Lot ABV2856, which was administered on the island of Sicily. Both men are now dead: Paterno died a few hours after he received his inoculation this week, and Villa died 12 days after his. And now a prosecutor in Sicily has opened a manslaughter investigation to determine if it was a bizarre coincidence or a bad batch of vax. The police have since sequestered the entire remaining Lot ABV2856 throughout the country.

The British-Swedish Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is easily the most cursed vaccine on the market thanks to a slew of bad publicity out of Germany and France about its effectiveness in people over 55, coupled with a myriad of problems with production that have slowed down deliveries. Italy banned the export of the vaccine to Australia last week due to shortfalls in Europe.

The vaccine is not approved in the U.S. yet due to slow clinical trials required by the FDA, but there are reportedly “tens of millions” of unused doses in American deep freeze warehouses that could be brought back to Europe. “We understand other governments may have reached out to the U.S. government about donation of AstraZeneca doses, and we’ve asked the U.S. government to give thoughtful consideration to these requests,” Gonzalo Viña, a spokesman for AstraZeneca told The New York Times. A U.S. official later told Reuters that there was “no way” Washington would be shipping any doses to Europe.

But now, thanks to reports about blood clotting and deaths among some recipients, those doses might not even be used if they were sent to Europe. AstraZeneca is now suspended in Iceland, Denmark, and Norway after a 60-year-old woman who received the shot in Denmark died of a blood clot. Italy, Austria, Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and Romania have suspended batches of the shot used by the two Italian men, and several other countries have queried the European Medicines Agency, which put out a statement trying to calm fears. “The position of EMA’s safety committee PRAC is that the vaccine’s benefits continue to outweigh its risks and the vaccine can continue to be administered while investigation of cases of thromboembolic events is ongoing,” the statement said. AstraZeneca reps told Reuters that the “vaccine had been extensively studied in human trials and peer-reviewed data” confirming that “the vaccine was generally well tolerated.”

Vaccine problems are just the sort of nightmare scenario one does not need a year into a pandemic. One year ago, Italy kicked off this pandemic with a draconian lockdown that showed results by summer, before a second wave in the fall took hold after schools and businesses reopened. Numbers went back down after the country locked down Christmas and New Years, but thanks to the variants—and now a lack of vaccines—a third wave is clearly on the horizon after the country reported nearly 26,000 new cases and 373 deaths in the last 24 hours, pushing the COVID-19 death toll now well above 100,000 in the last year, threatening to force the country back into lockdown, right back where it started.

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