Great Britain

Government’s ‘wildly inappropriate comments’ over UK’s ‘brilliance’ risk vaccine hesitancy, scientists warn

Independent Sage also criticised the government for “snatching chaos from the jaws of sanity” with distracting rows over erroneous claims that Brexit allowed for UK regulators to approve the Pfizer/BionNTech vaccine more rapidly.

In a briefing on Friday, the group – set up to shadow the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – urged for greater transparency and a public health campaign from the government to combat “vaccine hesitancy” and questions over the rollout.

While praising an “authoritative” No 10 briefing fronted by medicine regulators and virus experts on Wednesday, Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at UCL and member of Independent Sage, criticised the political response to the approval.

He said: “Within a few hours, government ministers were making wildly inappropriate comments about the brilliance of the UK, how we were ahead of the rest of the world, and even that we could only do this because of Brexit.

“Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate response from European Medicines Agency, European ministers of health and even Anthony Fauci in the US saying that this was not a race, and that time was needed to ensure safety of vaccine and future vaccine recipients.

“It seemed actually once again the UK was snatching chaos from the jaws of sanity and in the process merely potentially adding to vaccine hesitancy.”

Speaking on Friday, professor Pillay praised the “rigorous” work of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which gave the green light to the vaccine, but added: “We would urge the MHRA and the government to negotiate with trial investigators and sponsors of trials to make data available for public scrutiny.

“In other words, some of the data that has been shared in confidence with the regulators we do think we think should become more available.”

As more vaccines go through the regulators, he said ministers could enhance trust by creating a publicly available dashboard showing data on issues of safety, efficacy and activity of jabs across high-risk groups.

Professor Gabriel Scally, the president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, also echoed calls for greater transparency, saying: “Independent Sage view is that all of that data should be public.

“We should have absolute transparency about the vaccine — both the data from the trials but also things like the content of the vaccine. If you go into a shop to buy a manufactured food product you will see on the packing the ingredient list.”

Dr Zubaida Haque, the interim director of the Runnymede Trust, added: “We’ve got more than one group we should be concerned about – first of all there’s the anti-vaxxers, but actually most surveys have suggested they are quite a small group who hold those extreme positions.

“The group that we really need to be concerned about are the hesitant group and that group is quite large. The government really needs to do an active, myth-busting campaign that’s targeted towards BAME communities, that’s targeted towards the hesitant communities, rather than just the anti-vaxxers.”

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