EU superpowers Germany, France and Italy have said they are pausing administering the AstraZeneca shots after several countries reported possible side effects from the vaccine. Last week, Denmark and Norway stopped giving the jab to their millions of residents after reporting cases of bleeding, blood clots and a low platelet count. Iceland and Bulgaria quickly followed suit, with Ireland and the Netherlands then announcing their own suspensions of the vaccine on Sunday.
Spain is also reported to be considering not using the vaccine for at least 15 days, Cadena Ser radio claimed citing unnamed sources.
The sudden moves from some of Europe’s largest and most populous countries will deal another huge hammer blow to the bloc’s chaotic rollout of Covid vaccines in the region, which has been plagued by shortages due to problems producing vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s.
But medical experts have destroyed fears of dangerous side effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) urging people not to panic.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a virtual media briefing: “This does not necessarily mean these events are linked to COVID-19 vaccination, but it’s routine practice to investigate them, and it shows that the surveillance system works and that effective controls are in place.”
Despite several European countries suspending the use of the AstraZeneca jab, the WHO’s top scientist insisted there had been no documented deaths linked to COVID-19 vaccines.
Soumya Swaminathan told the briefing: “We do not want people to panic.”
The WHO’s leading scientist added no association had so far been found between the “thromboembolic events” reported in some countries and Covid jabs.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) insisted “many thousands of people” develop blood clots every year throughout EU and “the number of thromboembolic events overall in vaccinated people seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population”.
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“I spent all yesterday in our practice vaccinating with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – I would not be immunising my own patients unless I felt it was safe.”
Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, has been left baffled by the move to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“The data we have suggests that numbers of adverse events related to blood clots are the same (and possibly, in fact lower) in vaccinated groups compared to unvaccinated populations,” he said, adding that halting a vaccination programme had consequences.
“This results in delays in protecting people, and the potential for increased vaccine hesitancy, as a result of people who have seen the headlines and understandably become concerned.
“There are no signs yet of any data that really justify these decisions.”
On Sunday, Astrazeneca said: “A careful review of all available safety data of more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and UK with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca has shown no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or thrombocytopenia, in any defined age group, gender, batch or in any particular country.”
The drugmaker said so far throughout the UK and EU, here have been 15 events of DVT and 22 events of pulmonary embolism reported among those given the vaccine, based on the number of cases the Company has received as of March 8.
AstraZeneca insisted this is “much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed COVID-19 vaccines”.
The firm added that in clinical trials, despite the number of thrombotic events being small, “these were lower in the vaccinated group” and “there has also been no evidence of increased bleeding in over 60,000 participants enrolled”.
Chief Medical Officer Ann Taylor said: “Around 17 million people in the EU and UK have now received our vaccine, and the number of cases of blood clots reported in this group is lower than the hundreds of cases that would be expected among the general population.
“The nature of the pandemic has led to increased attention in individual cases and we are going beyond the standard practices for safety monitoring of licensed medicines in reporting vaccine events, to ensure public safety.”