The death of Katie Lees, a 34-year-old Bridgeclimb instructor and stand-up comedian, from a very common blood clot from taking the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine could spark an inquiry into pandemic management.
The family of a young lady who died last year after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine has backed calls for an investigation into the pandemic response, claiming that their daughter would not have received the vaccine if the federal government had better managed the distribution, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.
Neither major political party has formally committed to a broad investigation into how the pandemic was handled, although Labor leader Anthony Albanese has stated that he “can’t envisage” not conducting a “proper inquiry” into pandemic management.
Experts claim a transparent examination of the government’s ongoing pandemic response should look into vaccine deployment, supply, communication, treatments, and future variant planning.
Ian Kerridge, a haematologist and professor of bioethics and medicine at the University of Sydney, said, “There is a very strong argument for doing an inquiry into the government’s management of the pandemic that should include things like vaccine policy and treatments.”
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In Australia, more than 13.8 million AstraZeneca COVID-19 doses resulted in 88 verified instances of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS). Eleven people died as a result of the vaccine, eight of whom died from TTS.
Because of the small risk of TTS discovered during the vaccine’s introduction in Europe, the Vaccine Advisory Committee ATAGI initially recommended that young people get the Pfizer vaccine. However, with Pfizer in short supply and the risk of infection escalating with Delta’s arrival, AstraZeneca was given to over 630,000 under 50s in NSW.
On July 24, ATAGI revised its advice, suggesting that NSW residents obtain either vaccine.
On July 22, four weeks into Sydney’s lockdown, Katie Lees, a 34-year-old Bridgeclimb instructor and stand-up comedian, received her first COVID-19 vaccine. Lees has been scheduled for an AstraZeneca vaccine because she was not yet eligible for Pfizer.
“She was a very community-minded person,” Lees’ mother, Penny, said. “The general message at the time was ‘if you don’t get vaccinated we are never going to get out of lockdown’. She wanted to do her bit to get society moving along.”
Some COVID-free states were already giving Pfizer to under 40s at the time, while others urged them to wait.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison encouraged people under the age of 40 to talk to their GP about getting AstraZeneca. The following day, an indemnity scheme was announced.
Lees informed her father, Ian, the morning of her shot that she was “so proud” to be vaccinated as soon as she could after speaking with a GP.
Lees died 11 days later, when a GP telehealth appointment misdiagnosed her initial reaction of redness and headaches. Significant clots had formed in her brain when she arrived at the hospital.
In the end, Australia’s TTS death toll was about a fifth of what had been predicted. The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance Associate Professor Nick Wood explained that this was because early diagnosis has improved, with side effect surveillance and patient surveys being “critically important.”
When asked if allowing younger people to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine after ATAGI’s initial recommendations was reasonable, Wood responded yes.
Vaccine expert Julie Leask agreed that limiting AstraZeneca’s usage after Delta arrived in NSW would have resulted in “many more deaths.”
“ATAGI was constantly assessing the risks and benefits knowing that AstraZeneca could lead to this rare and serious side effect. But we were an immune-naive population facing a significant risk of rampant disease”.
Professor Huyen Tran of Monash University is working on two projects to figure out why some people had TTS after taking AstraZeneca. Despite the fact that it is now rarely used in Australia, Tran believes study is necessary to demonstrate that the instances are “not being swept under the carpet.”
Lees’ family, who are adamantly pro-vaccination, found it difficult to grieve in the months after her death since it was misinterpreted as anti-vax. Penny left her job as a Western Sydney hospital executive because it was too tough to hear about COVID-19 and the vaccine distribution.
“People now are saying ‘no one is talking about the COVID deaths’,” Lees’ cousin, Nicola Walkerden, said. “But this is how we have felt for nine months.”
On Wednesday, Morrison responded to reporters’ concerns regarding his silence on Australia’s rising COVID-19 death toll by noting that vaccination had saved thousands of lives and that the country’s low total death toll was “a record Australians can be very proud of.”
Under the COVID-19 vaccine claims scheme, the Lees family received $70,680 in compensation. So far, fifteen claims have been approved, with almost a quarter of the 1900 applications requiring additional details.
Last month, the COVID-19 select committee in the Senate recommended a royal commission “to examine Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Lees’ family is in favor of the suggestion, especially if the advice to allow younger people to get AstraZeneca is revised.
“[Morrison] will always hold in my mind some culpability, for … [saying] it was only advice, but it was advice from ATAGI, not from your grandmother,” Ian Lees said.
Professor Richard Holden and Dr. Steven Hamilton, economists, claimed in February 2021 that the first misstep was not investing in a variety of vaccines the previous year, given the number of unknowns.
“There was a period where we weren’t as vaccinated as a country as we could have been, and most of the east coast of Australia ended up in a lockdown as a result,” Holden said.
Former Secretary of the Department of Health Professor Stephen Duckett agreed.
“Most other countries had invested in multiple vaccines … we decided to invest in the University of Queensland vaccine and AstraZeneca,” he said, adding that a review with a panel of public health experts would be preferable than a “lawyer-heavy” royal commission.
The Lees family requested that mourners donate to Sydney’s Flight Path Theatre after their daughter’s death, where she was set to perform her solo show in August of the previous year. The Katie Lees Fellowship, a grant for a young female playwright under the age of 34, will be granted later this year.
“She was vaccinated to get live shows and performances back. It’s a positive way for her memory to live on,” Ian said.