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Soriot Finds Own Answer for Europe’s Covid Surge

25.11.2021 - The delta variant of the coronavirus is taking its toll on Europe as vaccine skepticism shows no signs of going into remission, and promising oral treatments developed by Pfizer and Merck & Co have not yet been approved. With deaths now feared to top 2 million by March 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) says the pandemic has become the leading cause of death in the region, whereby it helps to know that the WHO’s definition includes such countries as Russia, Ukraine, Tajikistan and Israel.

As the science scene tries to get a grip on the numbers, most vaccine makers and health authorities are seeking to reassure skeptics that (all) vaccines work and everyone should get at least two doses of one of them. But their voices are often drowned out by the social media drumbeat of organizations whose names start with Q, along with other conspiracy theorists.

Rushing headlong into the melee are European political leaders wringing their hands and seeking remedies or, if none are available, at least find scapegoats to absorb much of the blame. This week, a lame duck health minister and a corporate leader known for his occasional off-the-cuff remarks added drama to the world’s number most discussed topic for nearly two years.

Germany’s outgoing health minister Jens Spahn kicked off the 47th calendar week with a resounding Cassandra-like warning that by the beginning of next year almost everyone in the country will be “vaccinated, recovered or dead,” which probably prompted the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to put Germany (and Denmark) on a travel watch.

The CDC’s selection seemed narrow, as infection numbers in the Netherlands and Ireland are far higher, and the US and the UK are not that much better off. Still, Germany has been seeing a worryingly high death rate that has not been satisfactorily explained.

Next to speak up, with a drum roll and conclusions of his own, AstraZeneca’s CEO Pascal Soriot on Nov. 23 took to the airways with comments that startled some of his peers. The French head of an Anglo-Swedish drugmaker, described by former UK health minister Jeremy Hunt as “more British than the British,” even presented a scapegoat for the continental corona surge: Europe’s low acceptance of his company’s Covid vaccine, now known as Vaxzevria.

Did Europe’s elderly get shortchanged?

Speaking to BBC Radio 4 about the opening of a new R&D center at the company’s Cambridge headquarters, Soriot ventured that continental Europe (known to some as the EU), might be experiencing higher death rates because, in contrast to the UK, they didn’t offer Vaxzevria to their elderly citizens.

Differences in T-cell immunity between the vaccines could explain why those who received his company’s shot had longer-lasting immune protection against the virus compared to the mRNA vaccines, the AstraZeneca chief said, asserting that it “produces more T-Cells.”

Many commentators, even within the UK scientific community, found that the CEO’s explanation came up too short, as if Soriot was in a warp mode, a throwback to the discussions of last spring. At the time, health authorities in several EU countries were hesitant to inoculate people 65 and older with AZ’s viral vector vaccine, as this demographic was underrepresented in clinical trials. Later, however, when younger women receiving this vaccine began to be diagnosed with a rare blood-clotting disorder, the picture was reversed.

With supply of all vaccines now sufficient, continental Europe has largely turned away from the company whose vaccine rollout was marred by delivery delays and cross-channel slugouts fought with syringes. Germany has dropped AstraZeneca from its inoculation toolkit in favor of the mRNA shots made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. The remaining vials will be donated before they expire, Spahn said. The US, where this vaccine has not been approved, due to a flap over inconclusive data, is also giving away much of its stockpile.

Immunologists skeptical of AZ Assertions

Nationalism and one-upmanship aside, Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at London’s Imperial College, commented to UK newspaper The Guardian that he thought it would be “foolhardy” to try to attribute the differences in the shape of individual countries’ infection curves to any single factor. “I don’t know where you’d start to do that scientifically.”

Matthew Snape, a professor at the University of Oxford, which developed the vaccine that AstraZeneca markets, said he has compared antibody and T-cell responses in people receiving standard or mixed schedules with Pfizer/BioNTech’s Comirnaty and Vaxzevria.  Although his team saw evidence that a single dose of the latter induced a better T-cell response in the first dose, the immune response was ”very similar” after a two- dose “cocktail” of Vaxzevria followed by Comirnaty.

Other commentators likewise thought the picture too complex to be reduced to simple observations, especially, as one remarked, the differences between countries’ infection and hospitalization rates are multi-faceted. Efficacy of the vaccines, they said, may vary, depending on external factors such as when initial Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, how long the gap was between first and second doses, the age of the population, the prevalence of other diseases and the appearance of new variants – especially if they these come a long time after people have been vaccinated.

Author: Dede Williams, Freelance Journalist

 

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