Medical experts say Norway’s Covid vaccine deaths are ‘in line with expectations’ - here’s what happened
The country has now changed its policy on the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to consider excluding the terminally ill, after 33 people over the age of 75 died.
What happened in Norway?
Initial reports from Norway on 14 January raised concern over the safety of the vaccine, after Norwegian officials said it may be too risky for the very old and terminally ill.
The Norwegian Medicine Agency said that 23 people had died in the country a short time after receiving their first dose of the vaccine. Thirteen of those deaths had been autopsied, with the results suggesting that common side effects may have contributed to severe reactions in frail, elderly people.
“For those with the most severe frailty, even relatively mild vaccine side effects can have serious consequences,” the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said.
“For those who have a very short remaining life span anyway, the benefit of the vaccine may be marginal or irrelevant.”
Pfizer and BioNTech began working with the Norwegian regulator to investigate the deaths in Norway, with Pfizer saying “the number of incidents so far is not alarming, and in line with expectations”.
‘No direct link’
On 18 January, Norwegian officials said that there was no evidence of a direct link between the Covid vaccine and the deaths of some elderly patients.
Doctors have said it's possible that vaccine side effects could aggravate underlying health illnesses.
Steinar Madsen, medical director at the Norwegian Medicines Agency, told Bloomberg that a connection between the vaccine and the deaths is difficult to prove, adding: “We are not alarmed.”
At a press conference on Monday (19 Jan), Camilla Stoltenberg, head of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said: “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.”
An average of 400 people die every week in nursing and care facilities in Norway. The 33 reported deaths equate to around one in 1,000 of the people vaccinated within the care homes.
Madsen noted that, in some cases, the side effects of immunisation can “tip the patients into a more serious course of the underlying disease. We can’t rule that out.”
In the UK, Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said that, so far, there was "no evidence that any link between vaccination and death in these vulnerable patients is a causal one."
Evans also noted, when speaking to the UK’s Science Media Centre, that people who are at a high risk of death whether they get vaccinated “there will be a certain number of coincidental deaths that occur shortly after vaccination."
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health has now updated its Covid-19 vaccination guide with more detailed advice on inoculating elderly people who are frail and terminally ill.