COVID-19: No cause for alarm after 29 elderly people die in Norway following Pfizer vaccination - expert

A New Zealand health expert says there's no cause for concern after 29 elderly people died in Norway soon after receiving the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

The Norwegian Medicines Agency said in a statement some common reactions to the vaccine may have contributed to their deaths, which was to be expected in frail patients. 

A total of 29 people, all aged over 75, died out of more than 42,000 vaccinations in the Scandinavian country.

University of Auckland vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris said there's no indication the two are linked and the virus itself poses a much greater threat to the age bracket.

"I think this is something that we have expected," she told Newshub. "When you start vaccinating the extremely elderly - these are very, very frail people - you are, by chance, going to see deaths occurring shortly after.

Petousis-Harris said the deaths were most likely a coincidence.

"There's no indication that these deaths were unexpected - they're very, very elderly, frail people," she said. "There's also no indication that there are any more deaths than you would expect.

"In these people, the risk of dying from COVID is about two or three out of every 10 cases."

New Zealand's COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show on Monday he wasn't aware of the Norway report but the Government was undertaking a comprehensive approval process before any vaccine is distributed here.

New Zealand has ordered 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 7 million of the AstraZeneca jab. 

"We're not using emergency approvals as they are in some other places so when we ask New Zealanders to line up for a vaccine, it will be because it's been through a very thorough approvals process," Hipkins said.

"We are cautious on our approvals process in New Zealand - when we do make vaccines available here it will be because they've been through a good process and they are safe."

The deaths prompted the Norwegian Institute of Public Health to suggest in a statement the vaccines may be too risky for the very elderly and terminally ill.

"For those with the most severe frailty, even relatively mild vaccine side effects can have serious consequences. For those who have a very short remaining life span anyway, the benefit of the vaccine may be marginal or irrelevant."

Norway's Medicines Agency chief physician Sigurd Hortemo said any adverse reactions to the vaccine are carefully assessed.

"We cannot rule out that adverse reactions to the vaccine occurring within the first days following vaccination may contribute to more serious course and fatal outcome in patients with severe underlying disease. 

"As a result, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health has updated the COVID-19 vaccination guide with more detailed advice on vaccinating the elderly who are frail.

"Several reports of suspected adverse reactions are received on a daily basis and are continuously assessed."

The New Zealand Government has signed agreements with a total of four companies to secure enough vaccine doses for its entire population, with the rollout expected to begin in the second quarter of this year.

Pfizer and BioNTech said in a statement they were working with the Norwegian regulator to investigate the deaths.