Norway finds no direct link between elderly deaths and Covid-19 vaccine

Mr Svein Andersen, being given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, making him the first person in Norway to be vaccinated, on Dec 27, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

OSLO (BLOOMBERG) - Health authorities in Norway say there is no evidence of a direct link between the recent string of deaths among elderly people inoculated against Covid-19 and the coronavirus vaccine they received.

The Norwegian Medicines Agency is seeking to address fears that taking the vaccine might be too risky, after 33 people in the country aged 75 and over died following immunisation, according to the agency's latest figures. All were already seriously ill, it said.

"Clearly, Covid-19 is far more dangerous to most patients than vaccination," Dr Steinar Madsen, medical director at the Norwegian Medicines Agency, said by phone on Monday (Jan 18). "We are not alarmed."

The initial reports from Norway made international headlines as the world looks for early signs of potential side effects from the vaccines.

Until last Friday, Norway had used only the vaccine provided by Pfizer and BioNTech, and the companies are now working with the Nordic country to look into the deaths. The first Europe-wide safety report on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is due to be published at the end of January.

"All of these patients had serious underlying illnesses," Dr Madsen said. "We can't say that people die from the vaccine. We can say that it may be coincidental. It is difficult to prove that it's the vaccine which is the direct cause."

Norway has given at least one dose to about 42,000 people, focusing on those considered to be most at risk if they contract the virus, including the elderly.

Dr Madsen says it is possible that the side effects of immunisation can, in some cases, "tip the patients into a more serious course of the underlying disease", adding: "We can't rule that out."

He says Norway has already vaccinated all nursing home patients, "more or less", and the reported fatalities make up "well under one out of 1,000".

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Dr Madsen said he is not expecting a different outcome with another vaccine, from Moderna, which was introduced in Norway last Friday. Like the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, it uses messenger RNA technology that teaches the body's cells to fight off infection.

The Norwegian Medicines Agency says it made clear before the vaccination programme started that "it is expected that deaths will occur in a time-related context with vaccination" for the "oldest and sickest" people receiving inoculation.

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