Reports of rare Covid vaccine side effect does not mean jabs 'unsafe, ineffective'

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A Telegram post from an Australian anti-vaccine campaigner falsely claims that a decision by government advisers not to recommend a fourth Covid-19 shot to under-30s is proof that the jabs "were never safe or effective". Scientists say the benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh the risks, but that it was not currently advisable to give an extra shot to healthy young people who already had three doses, given their low chances of falling seriously ill with Covid-19 and a rare risk of heart inflammation linked to the jabs.

"They are finally admitting that the whacks cause heart complications and are not going to recommend any further injections for 'young people'," reads a Telegram post from November 15.

The term 'whacks' appears to refer to Covid-19 vaccines. Anti-vaccine groups on social media commonly use code words or even emojis to refer to the jabs to evade automated moderation tools.

"These things were NEVER safe or effective and the people who pushed them knew full well," adds the post from David Oneeglio, a prominent Australian anti-vaccine campaigner with more than 68,000 subscribers on Telegram.

Oneeglio has made a string of false claims about vaccines, including that Australian authorities were forcing farmers to inject livestock with mRNA jabs and that political parties were planning to make vaccination compulsory.

The Telegram post shows a clip from a broadcast by Australia's 9 News, which reports that the government's Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) is not recommending a fourth Covid-19 vaccine shot for healthy under-30s.

The presenter says: "The country’s top adviser on vaccination says it's unlikely under-30s will be approved for a fourth Covid vaccine."

"ATAGI says the increased risks of myocarditis means the current vaccine schedule of younger people will likely stay as is. Attention is turning to antivirals to tackle the new Omicron wave."

Myocarditis -- inflammation of the heart muscle -- and pericarditis -- inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart -- are rare side effects of Covid-19 vaccines, but most cases are mild and patients recover quickly.

Screenshot of the misleading post, captured on November 18, 2022

Oneeglio's post gained traction -- and was shared on Facebook here, here and here -- as Australia's chief medical officer urged people to stay up to date with booster jabs as the country saw an uptick in Covid-19 infections.

A representative for Australia's health department -- which ATAGI advises -- said the decision against recommending a fourth Covid-19 vaccine to healthy under-30s did not mean that the jabs were unsafe or ineffective.

"ATAGI emphasises that the overwhelming benefits of vaccination in protecting against COVID-19 greatly outweigh the rare risk of myocarditis and/or pericarditis," the spokesperson told AFP on November 16.

"At this stage, only a third dose is recommended for Australians aged 16 to 29, and those aged 5 to 15 who have additional risk factors."

ATAGI said in July that it only recommended a fourth Covid-19 dose -- which it called a "winter booster dose" -- to older adults or people with a medical condition that increases the risk of falling seriously ill with Covid-19.

"At this moment, ATAGI does not support making the winter booster dose available to healthy adults aged less than 30 years as it is unclear whether the benefits outweigh the risks in this population," it said.

"Although very rare, myocarditis associated with the mRNA vaccines can occur, particularly in adolescent and young adult males."

'Extremely safe' vaccines

Nathan Bartlett, an associate professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia's School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy, said ATAGI appeared to have decided there was currently "minimal gain" from giving a fourth Covid-19 vaccine to healthy under-30s.

"The vaccines are extremely safe, but like nearly all medications, mRNA COVID vaccines do come with some risk of adverse events," he told AFP on November 21.

"For COVID vaccines, there is a very low risk of heart inflammation (myocarditis) which appears to be a little higher in younger (than 30-year-old) people, particularly males. This adverse event is transient and manageable, but nonetheless does need to be weighed against the benefit of the vaccine."

Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) said it had received 822 reports which were "likely to be myocarditis" from around 49.7 million doses of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines administered in the country, as of November 13.

"Myocarditis is often mild, and cases usually resolve after a few days with treatment and rest," the TGA said, while acknowledging that serious cases have been reported in Australia and overseas.

Kristin Goddard, a research manager at the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center in California said that rare cases of myocarditis should not deter people from getting vaccinated.

"Covid-19 vaccines are a safe and effective way to significantly reduce the chances that a young person will end up in the hospital with Covid-19 disease, or pass it on to a more vulnerable person," she told AFP on November 18.

"Myocarditis and pericarditis following vaccination remain unlikely for most, and it's reassuring that when episodes do occur, they tend to be mild, short-lived and with full recovery."

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