Germany, France, Italy and Spain, the three largest European Union (EU) countries have suspended the use of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine over reports of dangerous blood clots in some recipients. They were later joined by Spain, Portugal, Slovenia and Latvia. Indonesia has also announced a delay to its rollout of the jab, which is cheaper than its competitors and was considered as the vaccination of choice for poorer nations.
AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccine for Covid-19, is just one of three vaccines in use in the European continent. Once expected to be a mainstay of protection for much of the world, the vaccine remains shrouded in controversy as more countries limit its use. In fact, the surging numbers of nations raising the alarm amounts to another setback for the EU’s vaccination drive, which has been plagued by shortages and other hurdles and is lagging well behind the campaigns in Britain and the United States.
Germany's health minister Jens Spahn said the decision to suspend AstraZeneca shots was taken on the advice of the country's vaccine regulator, the Paul Ehrlich Institute, which called for further investigation into seven cases of clots in the brains of people who had been vaccinated.
Italy's drug regulator announced a temporary ban, less than 24 hours after saying the "alarm” over the vaccine “wasn't justified.” And Spain said it will stop using the vaccine for two weeks while experts review its safety.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation said that the vaccine was safe to use and insisted that countries should keep using it.
“We do not want people to panic and we would, for the time being, recommend that countries continue vaccinating with AstraZeneca,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said.
“So far, we do not find an association between these events and the vaccine,” she said, referring to reports of blood clots from several countries.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is holding a special meeting on Thursday, echoed the WHO's calls for calm and said it was better to get the vaccine than not.
"The benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19, with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks of side effects," the agency said in a statement.
After several countries started imposing the suspension, AstraZeneca defended its product. “The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in phase III clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine has been generally well-tolerated,” a spokesperson for the company told AFP.
The UK has doled out more than 11 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, more than the entire EU, apparently without major problems.
In India, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is one of the two vaccines approved for emergency use. Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology, is the other vaccine.