Viewpoint: Why ‘better safe than sorry’ is a bad approach when vaccine side effects present limited risks

Credit: Reuters
Credit: Reuters

[Adenovirus-based COVID vaccines like the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots] have been temporarily suspended in 18 countries in Europe, South Africa, and the US pending a review on very rare incidence of specific type of blood clots. Most countries restarted them again soon after. I fear there is a potential for these hasty vaccine suspensions having led to more harm than good.

It feels more reassuring to actively take a step to avoid a risk (vaccination side-effect), while passively allowing the risk of disease to continue.

Recent opinion piece in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) also warns of this effect, called omission bias – it’s easier to remove an action we fear may cause harm, even when harm from inaction is greater.


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Defaulting to a “better safe than sorry” approach, at least temporarily, is a reaction with a large emotional component – and I don’t call it emotional to belittle or ridicule, on the contrary. These feelings affect all of us and can be very hard to ignore. Public health professionals are not immune to such impulses and their responsibilities are likely to increase the pressure they feel. But health authorities should take particular care not to let natural biases in risk perception interfere with more objective guiding principles.

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