More countries suspend Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as health experts urge continued use

hree vials of Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine (Source: Keystone)

An increasing number of countries are suspending the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine over concerns of blood clots. Meanwhile health regulators are making the case for continued immunisations.

Germany, France and Italy on Monday joined a growing list of countries that have suspended the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine over fears it causes blood clots, despite health regulators insisting there is no indication this is true. 

Both the World Health Organization  (WHO) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have stressed there are no established links between the vaccine and the reports of blood clots. 

"There is currently no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions, which are not listed as side effects with this vaccine," the EMA said in a statement last Thursday, adding that the benefits continue to outweigh the risks, 

Margaret Harris the WHO spokesperson said there was no link between the “excellent vaccine”  and increased risk of developing clots, encouraging the use of the shots.

Globally over 300 million Oxford-AstraZeneca shots have been administered and it is considered to be highly protective against the coronavirus, reducing the chances of someone getting ill and needing hospital treatment by more than 80 per cent, according to a Public Health England report.

However, a total of 11 countries in Europe have now temporarily suspended the vaccine following blood clot issues, some of them fatal in those who have received the jabs.

As of yet, countries such as Germany, France, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland have fully suspended the usage, whilst Italy and Austria have halted using specific batches as a precautionary measure.

On Friday, Thailand became the first nation outside of Europe to do so, delaying its AstraZeneca rollout over the safety concerns in the EU.

Denmark and Norway reported “highly unusual” symptoms in their citizens, as a 60-year old Dane died from a clot, and three Norwegians under the age of 50 were being treated in hospital on Saturday following their shots.

Tanja Erichsen of the Danish Medicines agency said “we do not yet know whether the blood clots and the death reported in Denmark are related to the vaccine, but it needs to be investigated thoroughly as a precautionary measure.”

Reporting the highest number of cases, the Netherlands on Monday said that it has had 10 reports of notable adverse side effects from the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab. This comes hours after the government put the immunisation programme on hold after concerns raised in other countries.

Austria took its decision after a woman died 10 days after vaccination because of "severe blood coagulation problems" and another recently given the shot was admitted to hospital with pulmonary embolism, a condition where there are blockages in the arteries of the lungs.

The Austrian doses were part of a batch of one million doses, identified as ABV5300, that was sent to 17 European countries.

Meanwhile, in Italy the suspension came after two people were reported to have died after receiving the shots. This prompted prosecutors in Piedmont, Northern Italy on Monday to seize 393,600 shots of the Oxford-AstraZeneca.   

AstraZeneca released a statement on Sunday saying that a review of safety data of more than 17 million people vaccinated with its Covid vaccine in the UK and European Union “did not show no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or thrombocytopenia in any defined age group, gender, batch or in any particular country.”

EMA said as of 10 March, a total of 30 cases of “thromboembolic events” have been reported among the five million people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine in the European Economic Area.

The WHO meanwhile said as of 12 March, more than 300 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been administered around the world with no cases of death.

The WHO told Reuters that "it is normal for countries to signal potential adverse events. This does not mean that the events are linked to vaccination but it’s good practice to investigate them,” however, the organisation appealed to countries not to pause the vaccination campaigns after Indonesia suspended the use.

Oxford-AstraZeneca doses form part of the Covax equitable vaccine initiative. Indonesia received 1.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca through the global programme this month and is set to receive some 10 million more in the next two months.

The Democratic Republic of Congo also received 1.7 million doses from the Covax scheme and due to start its vaccination campaign on Monday, has also delayed the immunization drive.

The Minister of Health signaled that a new date for the launch of the campaign "will be announced shortly, as soon as the results of the investigations already underway at the national and international levels will be available".

Even with fears over the safety of vaccines "as of today, there is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus," said the UN health agency.

Efforts to reassure nations by the WHO and EMA still remain. "Yes we should continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine," said Harris on Friday.

"The vaccine's benefits continue to outweigh its risks and the vaccine can continue to be administered while investigation of cases of thromboembolic events is ongoing," the EMA added.