16 March 2021

Reckless caution: Europe’s AstraZeneca madness puts lives at risk

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The AstraZeneca vaccine has been temporarily suspended across France, Germany, Spain, Italy and a number of other European countries after reports of blood clots among some people who have received the shot.

Thankfully, the UK has taken a different approach, with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency making clear that there is no evidence linking blood clots to the AstraZeneca jab and people should keep getting the vaccine.

The company itself has made a similar statement, pointing out that examining the 17 million people vaccinated in the EU and UK provides no evidence of increased risk. As AZ has noted, in that enormous sample group there have so far been 15 cases of Deep Vein Thrombosis and 22 of pulmonary embolism reported. “This is much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed COVID-19 vaccines,” its statement adds for good measure.

It really shouldn’t need repeating, but just because something happened subsequently does not necessarily mean it was caused by the event immediately beforehand. You could get run over by a bus the day after you get your vaccination. That does not mean your death was caused by the vaccination.

Nevertheless, a Norwegian health official angrily responded to AstraZeneca by stating “we also do not have the basis for saying [the blood clots] do not have anything to do with the vaccine.” This approach reverses the onus of proof, by asking AstraZeneca to disprove something that has no theoretical or statistical basis.

But this sorry affair also exposes a deeper difference in how policy is made on the continent compared to the UK. The EU, and often its member states, doggedly follows the “precautionary principle”. This means that when an activity potentially threatens health or the environment then the proponent has an onus to prove it is safe, even if there is no scientific evidence of risks. This principle is formally enshrined in the EU’s Lisbon treaty on environmental matters.

In practice the result of this principle is that many new technologies, even if there is no scientific evidence of their danger and large potential benefits, are banned. This crushes innovation that is essential to economic progress. The most notable example is GM crops, which are effectively banned in Europe despite substantial evidence of benefits for the environment of producing food with less land, pesticides and water.

To pass the precautionary principle challenge requires doing the impossible: proving something is completely safe. Based on this logic, if stairs or pools were invented today they would be forbidden because of the risks of falling and drowning. Economist Cass Sunstein goes one step further, arguing that properly applied it forbids both action and inaction, because both have large potential costs, and is therefore a recipe not for precaution, but paralysis.

Excessive regulation in the name of the precautionary principle has substantial negative consequences for health and the environment, adding compliance costs that reduce employment and increase poverty. In the case of AstraZeneca that cost is all too obvious: a delay to the EU’s already stuttering vaccination programme and prolonged exposure to Covid-19 for ordinary Europeans.

Rather than the EU’s reckless caution, we ought instead to adopt a more considered cost-benefit approach, sometimes considered labelled the weak precautionary principle. When the costs of being precarious are low, and the potential rewards quite high, then it is worthwhile taking protective action (i.e. purchasing a smoke detector or buckling your seatbelt). On the other hand, we should not stymie beneficial activity without evidence.

Even before this latest suspension, AstraZeneca’s vaccine had been the subject of completely undue controversy. This included false claims about its effectiveness among the over-65s. That led to an absurd situation where four in five doses of the vaccine delivered to EU countries were not being used and people were not showing up for appointments (despite complaints about lack of supply and blocking exports to Australia).

Now crucial days to vaccinate people are being lost just as cases increase in many parts of Europe. And, even after these pointless suspensions are withdrawn, it will be even harder to convince people to come forward for the AstraZeneca vaccine. That risks fewer vaccinations, more cases and higher fatalities. It perfectly exemplifies how a precautionary approach can turn deadly.

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Matthew Lesh is Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.