I am not an anti-vaxxer but… On 29 April 2021, Lisa Shaw, a clever, sensible, creative, mischievous, award-winning presenter at BBC Radio Newcastle, had her first Covid vaccination. Like millions of us, Lisa was delighted and relieved to get her jab. Not only did the 44-year-old mother of one feel she was doing her bit to keep her community safe (Lisa had been astonished a few weeks earlier when a girlfriend had said she wasn’t getting jabbed), she was excited “to give her mam a hug”.
A few days later, Lisa developed a headache and stabbing pains behind her eyes which wouldn’t go away. By May 16, she was taken by ambulance to University Hospital of North Durham. Tests revealed blood clots in Lisa’s brain and she was moved to a specialist neurology unit in Newcastle. By now, she had difficulty speaking. Scans showed she had suffered a haemorrhage in the brain and part of her skull was removed to try and relieve the pressure. Her husband Gareth Eve remained by his wife’s bedside, but Lisa told him to go home because she was worried about Zachary, their six-year-old. One final kiss. The last time Gareth heard her voice. Lisa Shaw died on May 21 from complications arising from the AstraZeneca Covid vaccination.
The coroner said: “Ms Shaw was previously fit and well” but it was “clearly established” that her death was due to a very rare “vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT)”, a new condition which leads to swelling and bleeding of the brain.
Strenuous efforts had been made to put the public’s mind at rest when the jab was approved. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was “a great British success story”, according to the then health secretary Matt Hancock; self-obsessed numpty that he is, Hancock was particularly chuffed the jab had been invented by someone who went to his Oxford college. “It is truly fantastic news – and a triumph for British science – that the @UniofOxford/@AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved for use,” tweeted a triumphant prime minister Boris Johnson.
At a dark time, the AZ jab brought a blazing ray of hope with the added patriotic, Brexit bonus that the UK was able to steal a march on our European neighbours. After Lisa Shaw died, we were told that the clots are “considered extremely rare,” there had only been 417 reported cases and 72 deaths after 24.8 million first doses and 23.9 million second doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK. It also saved a great many lives. But expressing reservations about possible side-effects was seen as party-pooping. It meant you ran the risk of being labelled as that most reviled and irresponsible being, an “anti-vaxxer”.
“I had lost my wife and my son had lost his mam, but for an awfully long time people like us weren’t able to tell our story because we were put in the box of crackpots and conspiracy theorists,” Gareth Eve told me yesterday. After Lisa died, Gareth says he had phone conversations with several leading broadcasters. “They would express sympathy, but then they were very nervous, they’d say they have to be very careful, you know, how they report the story without breaching broadcasting guidelines by implying there was any problem with the jab.”
One beautiful vibrant woman, “loved by everyone whose lives she touched”, was gone. (“I wish it had been me instead of her,” Gareth says, “I do my best as a single dad with Zach, but I’m never going to be Lisa, she was so tactile and loving.”) The fact Lisa Shaw had died after receiving the AZ jab was nothing to worry about, though, in the grand scheme of things, was it?
Well, yes, actually it was. The public – and in particular fit younger people like Lisa – have every right to feel aggrieved.
As this newspaper reported yesterday, the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine has been branded “defective” in a multi-million pound landmark legal actionwhich will suggest that claims over its efficacy were “vastly overstated”. The pharmaceutical giant is being sued in a test case by Jamie Scott, a father-of-two who suffered a significant permanent brain injury, and by the widower and two young children of 35-year-old Alpa Tailor. Both damages claims relate to VITT, the condition that killed Lisa Shaw. AstraZeneca says that the vaccine “has continuously been shown to have an acceptable safety profile” and that “regulators around the world consistently state that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks of extremely rare potential side-effects.”
In the months after her death, Gareth, who was “dealing with grief while you’re trying to parent” didn’t have the emotional energy for a legal battle. “I was in the Coroner’s Court in Newcastle when the coroner said there is no doubt Lisa died because of the AstraZeneca jab and the pathologist said the same and the doctor told Lisa while she was still conscious that the Covid jab had done this to her. It’s like they don’t want there to be any written record that they admitted guilt.”
I must admit there is a strong sense of, “There but for the grace of God go I” when I hear Gareth talking about his wife. I also had the AstraZeneca jab (twice) because, like Lisa, I wanted to reassure my elderly mother and hug her after over a year apart.
We were all given the impression that the jab could prevent both infection and transmission (why else would they make it mandatory for care home workers?) It sounded brilliant. But the legal claim states, “the absolute risk reduction concerning Covid-19 prevention was only 1.2 per cent”.
“Lisa thought getting the jab was the right thing to do as everybody did,” Gareth recalls, “The Government kept saying it was safe and effective. We didn’t know there were other countries that were withdrawing the AstraZeneca.”
Ah, yes, “safe and effective”. How many times did we hear Cabinet ministers intone that reassuring mantra? Yet, use of the word “safe” by any pharmaceutical company advertising a product had been banned for years for exactly that reason – it is misleadingly reassuring. (The Government seems to think the rules didn’t prevent it saying “safe and effective” because it wasn’t advertising a specific product: a Mandy Rice Davis if ever I heard one.)
Where, you might well ask, was the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency)? Ben Kingsley, a lawyer and co-author of a brilliant and damning new book, The Accountability Deficit, says: “For good reason, the MHRA’s rules did not allow AstraZeneca to promote its vaccine as ‘safe’. Yet, astonishingly, while a raft of other countries were pulling the AZ jab for safety reasons the British regulator stood aside with tragic consequences for Lisa and her family while ministers and the NHS continued to insist that it remained unequivocally safe and effective.”
It is almost too painful to consider that, 15 days before Lisa Shaw went eagerly to get her Covid jab so she could “hug my mam”, Denmark stopped the use of AstraZeneca in its vaccination rollout after reports of rare but serious cases of blood clots. Finland also announced that it would continue to limit the AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged 65 and over following similar health concerns. Was the MHRA unaware of growing international doubts (AZ was never licensed in the US) or was it, perhaps, rather reluctant to tarnish a great British success story?
In ethical terms, for a vaccine to be rolled out to people who are not at significant risk from Covid, it would need to be shown to be very safe indeed for those groups. I also clearly remember the head of the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, Kate Bingham, saying that vaccinating everyone in the country was “not going to happen”. “It’s an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50, focusing on health workers and care home workers and the vulnerable,” she said. Vaccination policy would be aimed at those “most at risk”. She noted that vaccinating healthy people, who are much less likely to have severe outcomes from Covid-19, “could cause them some freak harm”, potentially tipping the scales in terms of the risk-benefit analysis.
With a heavy heart I’m going to say what should have been said a long time ago. Unlike those who were actually vulnerable to Covid, Lisa Shaw did not need a Covid vaccine; any minuscule benefit to her was outweighed by the small risk. Neither did I (I’d had the virus in January 2020 as plentiful antibodies later attested and enjoyed good immunity). Millions of healthy people queued up for a jab they didn’t require which protected against serious disease in the elderly and vulnerable, but was not necessary for most of the rest of us.
How this country moved from a policy of only vaccinating those who would benefit to running the risk of inflicting “some freak harm” on people like Lisa Shaw may yet turn out to be one of the great scandals of the age.
“I put her on a pedestal,” Gareth Eve says of his late wife, “Lisa was only 5ft 2 and I’m 6 foot, but I put her on a pedestal. She was that wonderful. When she died, because of the way that she died after the jab, it was ‘a dirty secret’, you weren’t supposed to talk about. With AstraZeneca, these companies are run by human beings, you would have thought they were run by human beings, Allison, but they don’t want to talk to the people like me…Zachary doesn’t have his mam because the authorities didn’t give us the full picture about the risks.”
I am not an anti-vaxxer but…. Let’s stop saying that, shall we? There’s no shame in being against giving a vaccine to groups who didn’t need it, and which caused people to be dead who should be alive and taking their eight-year-old son to school.