Lies, damn lies, and statistics in the vaccine age, as Hong Kong and Macau stop administering the Pfizer/BioNTech drug.
This story first appeared on TheStreet.com on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.
I’ve been given a dodgy vaccine dose.
Hong Kong and Macau have today suspended delivery of the Pfizer/BioNTech/Fosun shots. The Chinese local distributor, Fosun, requested the halt of the first batch of the vaccine to reach these shores. Batch 210102 consists of 585,000 doses. Eight days ago, I got one.
The markets moved on the suspension. The Hang Seng Index opened slightly lower after yesterday’s 0.8% drop in the S&P 500. But as morning word broke of the vaccine halt, the Hang Seng faltered, ending Wednesday down 2.0% at its lowest level in more than 10 weeks. The Hong Kong benchmark is now in a technical correction. It has fallen 10% since a February 17 peak.
Now, I’m not too worried. About the vaccine, at least. I’m worried the negative news will delay shots getting into arms, and ultimately the economic opening up of Hong Kong and Asia in general.
There have been reports of “more than 50” instances of defective packaging for the Pfizer drug made by front-line nursing staff. Those reported defects include cracks in the tops of the glass vials, leaks, or stains on the outside. There’s no apparent safety threat.
The defective doses have been thrown out. Fosun, which received the packaging complaints, wrote to the governments in Hong Kong and Macau, telling them to suspend use of the drug as a precaution. It’s undecided how long the suspension will last. Fosun distributes the drug in China, while Pfizer sends it around the rest of the world.
The sudden halting of the BioNTech vaccine will raise further doubts in the minds of a Hong Kong public that is already highly skeptical about getting inoculated, as I explained before I got my shot. The Pfizer/BioNTech drug is one of only two available so far in Hong Kong. The administration of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine can continue.
We need to be very careful about how we respond to such reports. The tendency, as I exaggerated at the start of this article, is to think “Oooh, vaccine, dodgy.” AstraZeneca (AZN) is contending with far worse such misperceptions. The authorities should investigate if the Pfizer doses already administered have had the right strength.
I was, by chance, asked to provide some media training today for a major fund manager. The media coaching is something that I do very occasionally, when my corporate news sources request it. Here I was, giving the reporter’s eye view to companies administering their PR.
My early comments focused on three biases that are prevalent in today’s media: negative news bias (we remember bad news better), availability bias (we ascribe greater importance to news we’ve recently read) and confirmation bias (we seek out, by choice of news source or through algorithmic suggestions, news stories and data that support what we already believe).
The halting of the vaccines has Availability Bias written all over it. So, too, do the issues over the AstraZeneca jab concerning both blood clots in Europe and the veracity of its 79% efficacy rate.
An easy way of thinking about the combination of these biases: You never read about a plane that doesn’t crash.
It’s an exaggeration, we have all probably read a story about a pimped-out Gulfstream or a stealth bomber or two. We just remember the plane crashes.
Nevertheless, there have been an average of 14 fatal accidents for commercial and cargo planes globally per year over the last five years, according to the Aviation Safety Network, resulting in 345 deaths per year. In 2020, there were five commercial passenger-plane accidents, killing 299 people.
There were 42,060 people who died in vehicle crashes in the United States alone in 2020. The pandemic and empty roads seem to have encouraged reckless driving: the figure was up 8% over 2019, and the highest since 2007, even though people drove 13% less. What’s more, the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven spiked 24%, the largest annual jump ever, since the National Safety Council started collecting data in 1923. Speed, drugs and perhaps empty roads coupled with a deadly pandemic that encourage reckless behavior are factors.
Hardly anyone is afraid of hopping in a car. Plenty of people are terrified to fly. Yet even when you break it down into accidents per mile travelled, driving is far more dangerous.
It is far more dangerous to get Covid than to get a Covid vaccine. Covid is killing more than 20,000 people per week in Europe. Controversially, it might have been advisable for Europe to continue to give people the AstraZeneca vaccine even if they knew it was causing dangerous blood clots… but on further investigation, and to the best of our knowledge, it is not, anyway.
I need to write “to the best of our knowledge,” because we’re handling a health emergency in real time. The newly developed drugs involve vaccines developed in a year, when the process normally takes a decade. We have learnt a lot about Covid over the course of the pandemic, and will continue to learn about both it and the drugs designed to contain it.
Many European nations screeched to a halt with their AstraZeneca programs when the red flag was raised over concerns about suspiciously timed blood clots. At that time, there were 18 cases of cerebral sinus vein thrombosis, of which one was fatal, out of 20 million people vaccinated in Europe. That’s 0.00009% blood clots, and 0.000005% that were fatal.
Random chance determines that some people are going to get blood clots, and that seems to be what has been going on, although the clotting issue is still being investigated. In fact, the number of blood clots was lower than average in the general population, AstraZeneca says. But blood clots have become the plane crashes of the vaccine age.
Here in Hong Kong, I can tell you every single case of hospitalization after someone got a vaccine. On Monday, the latest info available, there were 20 people taken to hospital after receiving a dose, as this daily report outlines. “A female aged 58 suffered from dizziness,” one report starts. “A male aged 46 suffered from palpitation and increase in blood pressure,” another begins. “A female aged 20 suffered from loss of consciousness and abdominal pain,” and so on.
While this public record may be necessary, it also isn’t all that useful. What we want to know is, did the vaccine cause those effects? Did the person faint or get high blood pressure because they were stressed out? As a direct result of the drug? Because they don’t like needles? Or because they watched a scary movie on their phone while they waited?
Our Negative News Bias tells us it’s directly because of the vaccine drug. Our Availability Bias tells us everyone feels faint, when in fact 20 Hong Kongers had typically very minor reactions out of 23,400 people who got a dose that day: 0.085%. And we don’t even know why those 0.085% of people had that response. Confirmation bias tells anti-vaccers they were right all along.
The Hong Kong government reports that around 403,000 people have so far been vaccinated against Covid-19. Of those, 150,200 received the BioNTech vaccine, and 252,800 got the Sinovac jab. So about one-quarter of the original BioNTech Batch 210102 has been administered. The second Batch 210104 of 758,000 doses is all in storage.
The Sinovac numbers are higher because it was available first, and was for a while the only anti-Covid dose you could get. Mainland China is encouraging people to get a Chinese-made vaccine if they want streamlined entry to China, even though a Chinese vaccine is not available in many places, including the United States.
The BioNTech vaccine has been proving far more popular with the folks I know. Yesterday, about twice as many people signed up for the BioNTech/Pfizer shot as the Sinovac option. Its 95% efficacy figures are far higher than for Sinovac, which has variously been cited as 50.4% effective in Brazil, 65.3% in Indonesia and 91.3% in Turkey. The World Health Organization suggests a minimum efficacy of 50% – meaning 50 out of 100 people have total immunity – for a vaccine to be approved.
I’ve already indicated that I do not think the Sinovac drug should have been cleared in Hong Kong. The company has not released its clinical trials data to the public. It has not been properly peer reviewed. Hong Kong has broken its own public health rules to approve the drug, desperate to get a Chinese alternative into arms first before any “foreign” drug.
The 95% efficacy rate of the Pfizer/BioNTech drug has yet to be challenged. Should these defect reports dent its reputation in the public eye? According to the Hong Kong director of health, there have been eight incidents of cracked BioNTech vials, 22 air-pressure issues leading to leaks, 16 reports of vial seals being loose, and 11 cases of stains or marks on the outside.
That’s 57 incidents out of a batch of 585,500 doses. That’s a rate of 0.0097%. I like those odds. I’ve got an appointment to get my second dose three weeks after the first – assuming that this temporary halt in the vaccine program lifts.
It’s an appointment I intend to keep.