Eduvation Blog

AstraZeneca’s Unforced Errors

Good morning!

As I mentioned yesterday, this is my week immersed in marketing. Today I’m looking forward to rejoining the good folks at Vancouver Island U for day 2 of our recruitment marketing workshop!

As always, this newsletter had a mind of its own and went sideways a little, although in the end the focus is on a PR and branding nightmare for Oxford and AstraZeneca. The accelerated testing and deployment of their COVID19 vaccine has been a textbook case of how NOT to earn public trust…



Pandemic Précis

Quick updates for the day…


Europe is bracing against the third wave of the pandemic, as Germany and Finland extend their lockdowns until Apr 18, and infections “explode” in France. PM Boris Johnson warns the UK that it will impact Britain “in due course.”

“Previous experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends, it, I’m afraid, washes up on our shores as well and I expect that we will feel those effects in due course.”Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister





It may well be the higher ed PR headache of the year, although obviously it’s more seriously a public health and pharmaceutical nightmare…


It seems as though the more traditional vaccine development approach taken by AstraZeneca and Oxford U is liable to errors and missteps when accelerated to “warp speed” (as the Trump administration liked to call it). The tangled, convoluted path of the AZ COVID19 vaccine is a cautionary tale for PR and communications practitioners everywhere – but it is also largely responsible for the rising prevalence of vaccine hesitancy around the world.


Suspended Trials: You may recall that AZ suspended its clinical trials for more than a month last fall, due to one participant developing transverse myelitis – a routine precaution that nonetheless prompted 9 pharmaceutical companies to pledge their commitment to uphold safety standards (despite pressure to deploy a vaccine before the US presidential election).


Half-Measures: Then in November, AZ confessed that a bad batch of the vaccine resulted in ~25% of trial volunteers being given an unintentional half-dose, throwing the trial data into doubt. (Even worse, the volunteers who received the half-dose appeared to be better protected against COVID19 than those who got the proper full dose!) Adding insult to injury, the researchers had also combined data from quite different trials in Britain and Brazil. The New York Times said at the time that “spotty disclosures have eroded confidence” in the reliability of the results.


Rejected by South Africa: By January, AZ reported just 62% efficacy in trials with 65,000 subjects, leading Australia to question whether it was worth purchasing, and by February South Africa suspended its planned rollout of the AZ vaccine even after 1M doses were in hand, citing its “minimal protection” (admittedly against the SA variant). Numerous countries discouraged its use for older populations, in the absence of clear research data.


Fatal Blood Clots: After sorting through the clinical trial irregularities, the WHO finally gave the AZ vaccine emergency use authorization on Feb 15, and Health Canada on Feb 25. But last week, 30 occurrences of a potentially fatal blood clot in the brain caused a dozen European countries to halt distribution of the AZ vaccine, although the WHO assured the world that it was safe. The European Medicines Agency concluded that the AZ vaccine’s benefits outweigh its risks, although a connection to the blood clots cannot be definitively ruled out.


US Trial Data at Last? On Monday results from a US trial with 30,000 subjects found that the AZ vaccine is 79% effective in preventing all symptoms of COVID19, including in older adults, and that it led to no serious side effects. (Phew, you say? Not so fast!)  Just hours later, the US Data and Safety Monitoring Board announced that it was concerned AZ’s data from that trial was “outdated” and provided an “incomplete” view of efficacy. Apparently AZ rushed the paperwork to save some 48 hours, instead of taking the time to get it right.


Is it any wonder that anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant want to choose one of the more effective mRNA vaccines from Moderna or Pfizer instead?


Rejecting AZ Shots: Health officials in Quebec report that 5-10% of people are turning down the AZ vaccine at immunization clinics, and walking away from their appointments without getting a shot at all. In Alberta, AZ appointment slots were the last to fill, with thousands unclaimed after 48 hours. In Bucharest, 33,000 AZ appointments were cancelled and 10,000 people simply failed to show up.


Unforced Errors: Anthony Fauci laments the false starts, back and forths, and “unforced error” that unnecessarily feeds into public anxiety and vaccine hesitancy. (Apparently in its rush to release good news, AZ managed to shoot itself in the foot.)


Charity Case: To make matters worse, the AZ vaccine is getting a reputation as a second-best option for charity cases. It’s not a great look for a pharmaceutical brand when health ministers like Ontario’s Christine Elliott and Quebec’s Christian Dubé have to get their AZ shots on TV to overcome public hesitation! Or whenthe bulk of doses in the COVAX fund for developing nations are AZ vaccines. The FDA still hasn’t approved it, prompting the US to donate some of the 7M doses idling in warehouses to Mexico and Canada. And since the AZ vaccine is cheaper and easier to store, it will be the first choice of many poorer countries.



COVID on Campus

Since yesterday, there have been 2 more cases of COVID19 reported by CdnPSEs, all in Ontario. (See my master spreadsheet for a running tally of >1800 cases in CdnPSE since Sept 2020.)

Brock U reported yesterday a case on campus Mar 19.  Brock News

uWaterloo reported yesterday a case on campus.  UW



Marketing Wisdom

As a seasoned marketing professional who’s starting to gray a bit around the temples, it’s always reassuring to hear that some classic wisdom about branding and marketing still looks to be timeless…


Maintaining Brand Marketing

In 2021, the public is “hyper-aware” of brand values and positions, so – at a time when marketing must justify every cent of its budget – brand marketing remains crucial to build awareness and consideration, and drive loyalty. With increasing pressure to demonstrate ROI leading to an emphasis on performance-driven campaigns, “winning strategies will calibrate brand with performance execution” through contextual or sponsored advertising, providing in-depth, authentic content on your own platforms.  Marketing Profs


Classic Marketing Wisdom

Despite the “unprecedented” changes of the past year, some time-honoured marketing advice still hold true 50 or 100 years later. Know your audience, whether through personal conversations or big data analytics, and tell them what they want to hear about, not just what you want to talk about. “Write how you speak.” Always be genuine, admit mistakes, and offer value. Focus on a long-lasting, memorable brand rather than short-term tactics. Remember that “nobody buys on price,” and determine your “unique selling proposition.” Ultimately, remember that a quality product (in PSE, our academic program offerings) is crucial, no matter how brilliant the marketing.  Ad Age




OK, it’s not a higher ed video, but it’s better than anything else I’ve seen in the past 24 hours (thanks to my pal Kim Lawrence for sharing it)…


Canadian Pandemic Anthem

CBC’s 22 Minutes has produced some great (sometimes dark) humour over the years, from Dalhousie Dentistry to the Atlantic Bubble. On Friday they released a 3-min music video, a series of pop music satires really, capturing the national mood right now. From “wear pants if you want to” (think Men without Hats) and “what’s your number for contact tracing?” (Carly Rae Jepsen) to “I get locked down but open up again” (Chumbawamba) and “COVID19, oh I need that vaccine” (think “Come on Eileen”) – the gang does a great job that resonates with our experience and brings a smile nonetheless. (Oh, and they wrap up their 28th season with “525,600 Zoom calls,” a la Rent.)  YouTube

It’s worth a watch – and if you’ve come across any good higher ed music vids about the pandemic, do let me know!



As always, thanks for reading!

Stay safe and be well,



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