Norway policy on Pfizer vaccine unchanged after alarm over deaths

Several elderly and frail people who received the vaccine have died, but official says ‘not a given’ that there is any connection.

Norway is currently vaccinating residents of care homes, including those with serious underlying diseases [File: Fredrik Hagen/NTB/AFP]

Norway will not change its policy on the use of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine following deaths among highly frail recipients, but officials have said that health workers should properly assess patients before deciding whether to give them the jab.

As of January 14, 23 reports of deaths suspected to be associated with COVID-19 vaccines had been submitted to the Norwegian health registry.

Of the 13 cases analysed in detail so far, the concerned individuals were elderly, frail and had serious diseases, Camilla Stoltenberg, director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI), told reporters on Monday.

“It is important to remember that about 45 people die every day in nursing homes in Norway, so it is not a given that this represents any excess mortality or that there is a causal connection,” she said.

Stoltenberg reiterated that the FHI’s guidelines on administering the vaccine remained the same, stating doctors should consider the overall health of their patients before giving them the jab.

“One should have an assessment of each and every one before offering the vaccine,” she said.

But, she added: “It’s not impossible that some of those who have gotten the vaccine are so frail that maybe you should have reconsidered and not given them the vaccine, because they are so sick that they might have become worse from the normal side effects as the body reacts and builds up immunity.”

News of the deaths had raised alarm over the safety of the vaccine.

BioNTech had earlier said that Norwegian health authorities changed their recommendation in relation to vaccination of the terminally ill.

But the company later retracted the statement following clarification from Norway. Pfizer did not have any immediate comment.

Norway’s death toll from the pandemic currently stands at 521 people, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

‘Very rare occurrences’

Norway is currently vaccinating residents of care homes, including those with serious underlying conditions.

An average of 400 people die each week in nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the Nordic country.

Common adverse reactions to messenger RNA vaccines – such as the Pfizer-BioNTech shot – include fever, nausea, and diarrhoea.

A number of countries, including Norway’s neighbours Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, have also reported post-vaccination deaths, but no direct links to the vaccine have been established.

More than 48,000 people have been vaccinated in Norway so far.

PM eases restrictions

Norway has had one of the lowest infection rates in Europe during the pandemic, imposing tighter restrictions earlier than many other countries.

The 14-day cumulative number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants was at 157.95 in the week ending January 10, the fifth-lowest in Europe behind Iceland, Greece, Bulgaria and Finland, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg on Monday announced the easing of some coronavirus restrictions after extra measures put in place for two weeks appeared to have achieved the desired effect in slowing transmission.

But Solberg stressed that infection rates remained too high for comfort.

“Although the measures seem to be working, and the infection rates are somewhat lower, the situation is still uncertain,” she told parliament. “Infection rates are still too high but with common efforts, we can reduce the spread.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies