BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The health ministry announced Monday that it will reinstate use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in its COVID-19 vaccination programme, but it will only be given to people over 60 while younger people will be offered Sinopharm.

MoH had suspended use of AstraZeneca for two weeks due to concerns over rare blood clots reported in the UK and Europe, which resulted in a handful of deaths in predominantly younger people, although no adverse events have been reported in Brunei.

The health minister said the current recommendation is based on available data, with many countries moving to restrict the use of the Oxford vaccine to those over 50 since they seemed to have a lower risk of developing clots.

“In extensive vaccination campaigns, potential adverse events can occur following immunisation,” YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Md Isham Hj Jaafar said. “Vaccines, like all medicines, can have side effects.”

“This does not necessarily mean that the events are linked to the vaccination itself, but they must be investigated to ensure that any safety concerns are addressed immediately.”

Minister of Health YB Dato Hj Md Isham speaks at a press conference on April 19, 2021. Photo: The Scoop

Speaking during a press conference, the minister said that people who have already received the first dose of AstraZeneca should continue with the second dose, regardless of age.

He stressed that the overall risk of blood clots is extremely low — at four in one million — and that it was a treatable condition if caught early.

While the Oxford jab will not be routinely offered to those under 60, it can still be given to younger people so long as they consent to and understand the risks, he added.

MoH said the Vaccine Technical Committee has reviewed information from UK and European drug regulators, and also participated in a scientific exchange involving experts from Asia-Pacific and representatives from AstraZeneca.

While there is no clear proof that the jab caused the clots, experts say there is a possible link.

So far, over 2,300 people have been given the AstraZeneca vaccine in Brunei, with no blood clots reported.

File photo from April 3, 2021 shows RIPAS Hospital staff standby on the first day of Brunei’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Photo: Faiq Airudin/The Scoop

Will AstraZeneca woes increase vaccine hesitancy?

The suspension and restriction of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in many parts of the world has been a major blow to global vaccination efforts.

At $4 a dose, the two-shot vaccine is the most affordable option for many low and middle-income countries, and it does not pose the same logistical challenges of Pfizer and Moderna, which must be stored at incredibly low temperatures.

Asked if the suspension of AstraZeneca — and now Johnson & Johnson — in several countries would damage public confidence in COVID vaccines, the minister said people need to understand the wider context.

“Let’s compare the risk of taking the vaccine to many everyday activities, or even other medicines — we do these things routinely everyday, because the risk is low and the benefits are much, much higher.”

“Of course there will be a degree of anxiety and worry, especially because there is a lot of viral information spread, not just about AstraZeneca but other vaccines as well,” he said.

“But what matters is the impact on real life, where it prevents hospitalisation and people going into ICU.”

A survey conducted by MoH in January showed that a third of Bruneians were unsure about taking the shot, while eight percent said they would not, or were unlikely to take the vaccine if offered.

Dr Justin Wong, head of the ministry’s head of the Disease Control Division, said it was important to make a distinction between vaccine hesitancy and vaccine skepticism.

“Brunei has a population that is very cooperative with respect to vaccination, when you look at childhood vaccination it is close to 100 percent.”

Childhood immunisation for 10 diseases — including tuberculosis, measles, polio, mumps and hepatitis B — is mandated by law, while COVID-19 vaccination is not. However under the Infectious Diseases Act, the government has the power to make any vaccination mandatory in the interest of public safety.

Dr Wong said MoH is working to increase vaccine acceptance through community and media engagement.

“We’ve done town halls, we’ve met with village heads… We have done a significant amount of work trying to communicate [with the public]. We field questions every day on the 148 hotline… and we’ve also ramped up our social media outreach.”

“So far we are seeing positive results.”