AstraZeneca vaccine: WHO reaffirms benefits outweigh the risks as probe continues

A nurse preparing a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (Keystone/AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

A World Health Organization (WHO) panel of experts examining the safety of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday said it still considers that the benefits outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue. 

The WHO said the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety was carefully assessing the latest available safety data for the AstraZeneca vaccine after several countries suspended its use amid concerns that it causes blood clots. 

“Once that review is completed, WHO will immediately communicate the findings to the public,” the organisation said in a statement.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) reiterated on Tuesday that “there was no indication” that the vaccine causes blood clots and said it remains “firmly convinced” of the benefits of the drug. 

As of 10 March, 30 cases of “thromboembolic events”, or blood clots, had been reported among five million people who had received the AstraZeneca Covid jab in Europe. 

The EMA’s investigation is still ongoing and will release its findings on Thursday. “We know that many thousands of people develop blood clots in the EU so what we want is to establish whether these events are caused by the vaccine or by other causes," EMA executive director Emer Cook said at a press conference on Wednesday. 

Sweden and Latvia became the latest to join a fast-growing list of countries, most of them in Europe,  to have suspended the rollout of AstraZeneca shots pending the outcome of the regulators’ investigation. 

Read also: More countries suspend use of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine

Others, like the UK, have issued strong statements in support of the vaccine, with the country’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday saying that he would be receiving his Oxford-AstraZeneca shot “very shortly”.  AstraZeneca on Sunday issued a statement insisting the vaccine was safe.

The scare adds to a list of existing tensions the EU is already facing over vaccinations after facing criticisms over the slow rollout of vaccines. AstraZeneca on Saturday announced a fresh shortfall in vaccine shipments, blaming production problems and export restrictions.  Meanwhile, the EU along with other of the world’s richest countries have come under mounting pressure to share their excess vaccine doses with poorer countries, with the WHO repeatedly calling on governments to make vaccine protection against Covid-19 “a public good”.

In its statement on Wednesday, the  organisation said it is working closely with the EMA and other regulators around the world for the latest information on Covid vaccine safety. 

“Vaccination against Covid-19 will not reduce illness or deaths from other causes. Thromboembolic events are known to occur frequently. Venous thromboembolism is the third most common cardiovascular disease globally,” the WHO said in its statement. 

“In extensive vaccination campaigns, it is routine for countries to signal potential adverse events following immunization. This does not necessarily mean that the events are linked to vaccination itself, but it is good practice to investigate them. It also shows that the surveillance system works and that effective controls are in place.”