AstraZeneca's vaccine comms: Why 'slick and corporate' isn't always best

The AstraZeneca vaccine is a good jab let down by poor communications. Or so the narrative goes.

The Guardian ran a piece headlined: “How the AstraZeneca vaccine became a political football – and a PR disaster.”

But is this really fair?

The first so-called ‘communications mis-steps’ was the announcement of phase three results. I chaired that press briefing and it was certainly complicated. Whereas Pfizer and Moderna announced one headline effectiveness number (95 per cent and 94 per cent respectively) Oxford and AZ announced their vaccine was 62 per cent and 90 per cent, with results from different trials using different time intervals and dosing. The overall 70 per cent efficacy was an average of the two trials.

Yes, the data was messy. Journalists struggled to report it and some third party scientists we approached for comment criticised the approach.

The science was also preliminary. Because of the speed required, AZ scientists have often been speaking to journalists about results they are still in the process of examining and interpreting. That’s a good thing.

The other alleged communications mis-step was the lack of information when the Oxford/AZ trial was paused last year to investigate a small number of potential side effects in the UK and US. That pause was widely welcomed by UK scientists as reassuring proof safety was taken seriously. But there was much more criticism, and a longer delay, in the US.

The disparity suggests something other than clear cut communications failures. The different responses were also evident after the most recent ‘mishap’: when the US trial data was released, it was slapped down publicly by an independent monitoring board.

I don’t understand everything that happened there but I wonder if those claiming ‘comms cock up’ do either.

AZ claimed it was legally obliged to release that data once available and updated it quickly, while independent experts told us it’s not unusual for data monitoring boards to challenge results from companies and questioned the wisdom of the public rebuke.

I am not suggesting all the PR around this vaccine has been perfect. How could it be under these circumstances? But I think we should be careful what we wish for.

Scientists at big pharmaceutical companies are rarely accessible to journalists and the public but AZ scientists have sat next to their scientific colleagues at Oxford frequently, answering questions during the vaccine's development.

One journalist approvingly told me other vaccine producers are more slick and corporate. Maybe, but they have also been far less visible. And do we really want slick, corporate comms around a new COVID-19 vaccine? Many of these bumps are down to the scientific complexities and require open, accessible communications in real time.

I think press officers at Oxford and AZ deserve a break and hope open science communication from big pharma will emerge as a positive dividend of this crisis.

If, as some experts predict, [regulatory bodies] the MHRA and EMA soon confirm a link between the AZ vaccine and very rare blood clots, we'll all need the best open science communication from all vaccine producers.


Fiona Fox is chief executive of the UK-based Science Media Centre 

This story first appeared on PRWeek UK.

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