COVID-19: Chris Hipkins confirms 'handful' of Kiwis have had 'severe reaction' to Pfizer vaccine

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has set the record straight and confirmed a "handful" of Kiwis have experienced "severe" side effects from the Pfizer vaccine after epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said he wasn't aware of any serious cases.

Side effects from COVID-19 vaccines have been reported around the world from small issues such as headaches, fatigue and nausea to more serious reactions including blood clotting, which has been linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Dr Baker appeared on The AM Show on Monday and was asked if there have been any serious side effects or issues recorded in New Zealand with the Pfizer vaccine, which is the only COVID-19 vaccine currently available.

"Not as far as I am aware. You get some mild or moderate effects that we know about… but I'm not aware of any serious side effects in New Zealand to date." 

However, appearing on the show on Tuesday, Hipkins said Medsafe has reported some reports of reactions.

"Yes there have been a few people who have experienced side effects and that is not unusual for this vaccine, that applies with almost every vaccine that does get rolled out," he said. 

"You do get some people who have an allergic reaction, not to the vaccine but to the solution that the vaccine is mixed in with for example.  Those are all recorded and are publicly available on the Centre for Adverse Reaction Monitoring (CALM) website."

When asked how many people had reported side effects, Hipkins said "a small number, a handful of people" had reported "severe reactions", while "a bigger number" reported milder symptoms.

The latest safety report from Medsafe (between Feb 20 - June 5 2021) confirmed there have been 4521 reports of adverse events following immunisation out of a total 744,883 vaccinations.

Of these, 4341 were not serious, while 180 were serious.

Many of the serious reports included allergic reactions, while other issues include reactogenicity reactions (flu-like symptoms), stroke, pulmonary embolism, thrombosis, reduced vision, seizure, facial paralysis and haemorrhage, according to Medsafe.

The 10 most common adverse events were:

  • Headache: 1690 reports
  • Dizziness: 1321 reports
  • Nausea: 1121 reports
  • Fever: 1103 reports
  • Lethargy: 1067 reports
  • Pain at the injection site: 915 reports
  • Musculoskeletal pain: 523 reports
  • Feeling hot and cold: 423 reports
  • Numbness: 306 reports
  • Chest discomfort: 291 reports

But Kiwi vaccine expert Helen Petousis-Harris has previously urged people not to worry about minor side effects.

"You should be forewarned that you might feel a bit grotty the next day, that's okay and quite normal," said Dr Petousis-Harris.

"Generally people perk up after that. All of those symptoms that you feel are symptoms of your immune response kicking in." 

She said many people, who might not have had a vaccine in several years, are caught by surprise. 

"Some have been taken by surprise and they didn't realise that was actually potentially a normal response. Some people feel nothing at all. You might be one of those people who feel a bit off... Just know that that's normal and not to worry about."