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COVID-19 vaccine “linked to low platelet count”

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  • Researchers believe slightly increased risk should not deter roll-out of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine 

A condition that affects the blood, known as idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), may be associated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in rare cases, according to research involving the University of Strathclyde.

The very small increased risk of the condition – which is characterised by low platelet counts – is estimated to be 11 per million doses, similar to figures seen in vaccines for flu and MMR.

A low number of platelets – blood cells that help prevent blood loss when vessels are damaged – can result in no symptoms or can lead to an increased risk of bleeding or, in some cases, clotting.

Researchers in the study, led at the University of Edinburgh, say that the increased chance of developing ITP after receiving the vaccine remains smaller than the risk of developing it because of Covid-19 and should not deter the roll-out of the vaccine programme.

The same risk was not found for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Other vaccines were not included in the study.

Experts recommend that recipients of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine should be made aware of the slight increased risks of ITP but also stress that the risk of developing the disorder from COVID-19 is potentially much higher.

Professor Chris Robertson, Professor of Public Health Epidemiology in Strathclyde's Department of Mathematics and Statistics and Head of Statistics at Health Protection Scotland, was a partner in the study. He said: “This study shows the advantage of being able to link together large national data sets to provide near real time information of vaccine safety, using a number of analytical methods. An important next step is to replicate this work in other settings to ensure that the findings are robust.”

The study of 5.4 million people in Scotland, of whom 2.5 million had received their first vaccine dose, is the first analysis of ITP, bleeding and clotting events following vaccination for an entire country.

Researchers were unable to establish a definitive link between other forms of clotting – including the rare form called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), due to the very low number of cases in vaccinated people included in the study.

Those at most risk from ITP tended to be older – a median age of 69 years old – and had at least one underlying chronic health problem such as coronary heart disease, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

The research team, led by the University of Edinburgh, analysed a dataset as part of the EAVE II project, which uses anonymised linked patient data to track the pandemic and the vaccine roll out in real time.

They investigated data up to 14 April 2021 for people in Scotland who had received the first dose of either vaccine. By this date more than 1.7 million had an Oxford-AstraZeneca jab and some 800,000 had a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The researchers also looked at health records dating back to September 2019 to investigate any previous issues with ITP, clotting or bleeding disorders.

The data – including GP records on vaccination, hospital admissions, death registrations and laboratory test results – were then compared with those who were yet to be vaccinated to determine if any clotting events were outside what would have been expected pre-pandemic.

The data indicated that there was a slight increase in ITP in the second week following vaccination for those who received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and possibly also increased risk of arterial clotting and bleeding events.

The 11 cases of ITP per million vaccine doses is similar to numbers seen for Hepatitis B, MMR and flu vaccines, which range from 10 to 30 cases of ITP per million doses.

The team found no adverse events in relation to ITP, clotting or bleeding in their analysis for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Researchers say a two-week lag for hospital data may mean some data are missing, which possibly limits the study’s findings. In addition, the study included relatively few young vaccinated people under 40, especially for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The Scottish vaccination programme followed the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which prioritised vaccinations for older and vulnerable adults.

The results have been published in the journal Nature Medicine. The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, UK Research and Innovation Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and Health Data Research UK (HDR UK), and was supported by the Scottish Government.

Additional support was provided through the Scottish Government Director-General Health and Social Care, and the UKRI COVID-19 National Core Studies Data and Connectivity programme led by HDR UK.

The study also involved researchers from the Universities of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Oxford, and St Andrew’s, Victoria University of Wellington, Queen’s University, Belfast, and Public Health Scotland (PHS).