Germany, France and Italy have become the latest European countries to temporarily halt the rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine over a small number of blood clot concerns, going against the advice of international medical agencies as a third wave of infections looms over the continent.
After initially standing by the safety of the vaccine, German health minister Jens Spahn said yesterday that the country would pause inoculations as a precaution, following reports of a handful of cases of blood clots in people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot.
France and Italy also halted their rollouts of the vaccine yesterday, pending review by the EU’s medicines regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
“We have decided to suspend the use of AstraZeneca as a precautionary measure and are hoping to resume it quickly if the EMA’s advice allows it,” French President Emmanuel Macron said yesterday in a news conference. “The EMA will give its assessment tomorrow afternoon on the use of this vaccine.”
Italy’s medicines agency also suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine “as a precaution and temporarily,” prior to the EMA meeting, the Italian medicines agency AIFA announced yesterday.
These suspensions came hours after prosecutors in northern Italy ordered a batch of the vaccine to be seized, citing a man who fell ill and died after taking a shot.
Much of Europe has now nonetheless halted the shot for the time being, following the fatality of one woman in Denmark that has yet to be linked to a vaccine.
The suspensions go against the advice of the World Health Organization, the EMA and the pharmaceutical giant itself, all of whom have said there is no evidence of a link with clotting and that rollouts should continue while the reports are investigated.
More than 11 million AstraZeneca jabs have been delivered in the UK, and Britain is now one of few major European countries still backing the vaccine. Spahn said he spoke with his counterpart in the UK before halting Germany’s rollout.
AstraZeneca doubled down on the safety of its shots Sunday, saying that a careful review of the 17 million people inoculated with it in the EU and Britain found again that there was “no evidence” of a link with clots.
It found that of those millions of people, there have been 15 events of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and 22 events of pulmonary embolism reported after vaccination; lower than the number that would be expected to occur naturally within that population size.
Nonetheless, the death of one woman in Denmark — alongside a handful of non-fatal cases there and in Norway — has prompted a number of countries to pause their rollouts until reviews have been conducted. The Danish Medicines Agency said yesterday the woman in question had an “unusual” combination of symptoms before she died.
Over the weekend Ireland and the Netherlands joined the pack of countries pausing their use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The chairwoman of Ireland’s vaccination advisory committee said it took the step to “maintain confidence” in the country’s inoculation program. The Dutch government said its move was “precautionary” and would last for two weeks; this came just days after health minister Hugo de Jonge said there was “no cause for concern” over the shot.
The vaccine still has the confidence of the European Medicines Agency, which said on Thursday the benefits of using it outweigh the risks and that there was “no indication” the shot caused blood clotting in the handful of people who reported it.
The UK has by far led the way in administering the AstraZeneca vaccine, with more than 11 million people receiving a dose, and it too has stood by the shot. Real-world data from the country has also shown it is having a significant impact in reducing COVID-19 hospitalizations.
A single dose of the vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 by more than 80% in people aged over 80, data from Public Health England showed earlier this month. The vaccine is given in two doses, though countries differ in how far apart they are spreading those shots.
Europe’s concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine comes at a difficult moment for the continent, with a third wave of infections threatening to grip the continent one year after the pandemic began.
Italians are back under lockdown restrictions and millions have had their Easter plans canceled again, in scenes eerily similar to last March when Italy became the first European country to restrict people’s movement as the coronavirus ran rampant.
Citizens were banned from traveling between regions from Monday and were told the entire nation would be considered a “red zone” over the Easter weekend.
Italy’s new Prime Minister Mario Draghi had said the rules were necessary because “we are unfortunately facing a new wave of infections,” a somber reality after 12 months of pandemic misery.