Ugandan health experts yesterday assured citizens that the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine being administered in the country is safe, despite more than a dozen European and other states suspending its use.
German, France and Italy joined other countries, including Austria, Ireland and The Netherlands to temporarily halt the Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs as a precaution pending the outcome of an investigation into reports of death and blood clotting in some jab recipients.
In Kampala, officials at the Ministry of Health, just like the World Health Organisation (WHO), which approved the vaccine for use, say there is no confirmed link between the inoculations and reported blood clots.
“On the issue of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), what we call in the layman’s language having clots in the veins, there hasn’t been anybody saying because I took the vaccine, it’s the one which caused DVT,” said Dr Mukuzi Muhereza, the secretary general of Uganda Medical Association (UMA).
He added: “It could just be any other cause. Unless we review the data and see that there is a relationship between the vaccine and DVT, we shouldn’t de-campaign or associate the vaccine with DVT. I encourage everybody to take this vaccine.”
The BBC reported yesterday that about 40 out of 17 million people vaccinated in Europe had reported blood clots.
However, there was animated conversation and mixed reactions on social media about the vaccine after President Museveni in a televised national address said he had not yet taken a Covid jab in order to give first chance to frontline health workers.
“The [other] reason I have not been vaccinated is because I am quite careful; well protected by the system here [at State House]. But, also, I am looking at which of the vaccines should I go for; the Johnson & Johnson, the Chinese (Sinovac) or the Russian (Sputnik),” he said, stirring mixed public reaction.
Fahad Amir Nsubuga yesterday tweeted that: “He (President Museveni) wants people to be vaccinated [with] the vaccine he brought in the country, but he’s still looking for a better vaccine.”
Government officials yesterday dismissed concerns that the President’s comments could potentially prompt Ugandans to hold back on vaccination.
Such presumption, senior presidential press secretary Don Wanyama said would be unjustified “nit-picking” from the presidential address, especially that Mr Museveni is an “advocate of vaccination”.
“The President was clear that he’s taken enough precaution such that even when close staff have been affected by Covid-19, he is still safe. From day one, President Museveni has been an advocate of the scientific approach to fighting and checking this pandemic. That position has never changed,” he said.
Mr Museveni said a number of his media and household staff caught the virus, but he didn’t, proclaiming a near victory over the pandemic that he said had claimed only 334 lives in Uganda out of more than 40,000 infected persons.
Uganda about a fortnight ago received a consignment of 864,000 doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca from Covax, a facility set up by WHO to ensure vaccine access for poorer countries, and rolled out countrywide inoculation programme last week after getting an additional 100,000 doses donated by the government of India.
The overall response has been slower than expected, with for instance health workers in Lira shunning the voluntary jab, and the exercise launch being deferred in different parts of the country ostensibly for logistical handicaps.
Dr Joyce Moriku Kaducu, the State minister for Primary Healthcare, said yesterday that she had not yet taken the jab, but assured Ugandans that it is safe.
“I have not been vaccinated because I am not a frontline health worker. My cabinet minister [Dr Jane Aceng] went [and was inoculated] because she had to flag off the vaccination,” she said.
Ms Robinah Nabbanja, the minister of State for Health (General Duties), who has received the jab, said she never suffered an adverse reaction to the vaccine, except some pain at the injection site, and questioned why the public would doubt the vaccination due to the president’s comments.
“That is the President’s feeling. We also have some people at the ministry who have not been vaccinated. Naturally, some people wait to see if someone has died. Remember it is voluntary. For us who believe that our ministry cannot do something harmful to the people, we took it,” she said.
Dr Medard Bitekyerezo, the National Drug Authority chairperson, said they are only allowing Covid-19 vaccines that have been pre-qualified by WHO to provide safe and effective serum.
“We have capacity to assess the quality of vaccines that are coming into the country. We even have partners outside who help us to sort out issues of vaccine quality if we lack the machine,” he said.
Explaining the approval processes before the vaccine was brought into the country, NDA secretary, Dr David Nahamya, said their experts scrutinised the clinical trial data of the vaccine for safety and efficacy.
The Uganda’s drug regulator also considered previous approval by important drug regulators such as America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of the United Kingdom, among others.
“You have to review data or information that is available. So, we look at the line of approval which has been done by other countries. AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine has been approved in the United Kingdom and European Union countries. We have ever approved vaccines especially the old ones such as polio vaccine, measles and the rest. These ones for Covid-19 are a bit new,” Dr Nahamya said.
Civil society’s take
Ms Salima Namusobya, the executive director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, an NGO championing social rights of Ugandans, questioned the President’s remarks.
“The head of state is supposed to be fountain of honour. He is supposed to lead by example because there are many Ugandans who won’t do anything unless he does it. That is why in Covid-19 when Museveni came and said this disease is real, wash your hands, people then began following him,” she said.
“What they need to do is come and tell Ugandans, we are hearing your concerns, we are looking into these issues and this is what we have found as the scientists,” she added.
However, Ms Robinah Kaitiritimba, the executive director of Uganda National Health Consumers’ Organisation, asked the public not to be discouraged.
“I don’t think the doubts by President Museveni should make people get discouraged from going to get vaccinated. The President said he is well protected by the system [at his official residence] and that he wants frontline personnel to first get the jabs. However, I also know that leaders of countries have also been hit by the virus even though they are well protected. If I had got a chance, I would have already been vaccinated,” Ms Kaitiritimba said.
What is in the vaccine?
According to information from the website of Serum Institute of India, the manufacturer of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, the jabs contain “genetically modified organisms (GMOs).”
The AstraZeneca vaccine is a viral vector-based vaccine which uses the body’s own cells to produce an immune response as opposed to the old method of using parts or weakened virus to trigger the immune response.
The vaccine uses a modified virus called chimpanzee adenovirus. Scientists put the genetic code (material) of the coronavirus in chimpanzee adenovirus which when injected into the body, causes the immune response against the coronavirus.
Other ingredients in the vaccine include alcohol, sugar, salt, L-histidine hydrochloride monohydrate, magnesium chloride hexahydrate, sodium chloride, the substances used for long term stabilisation of the serum, according to the manufacturers.
Reported by Franklin Draku, Tonny Abet & Patience Ahimbisibwe