The EU’s medicines regulator said on Tuesday it was “firmly convinced” the benefits of AstraZeneca’s vaccine outweigh any potential risks, insisting there was no evidence linking it to blood clots after several nations suspended the shot over health fears.
The suspensions have provoked intense debate about whether it is prudent to put AstraZeneca inoculations on hold just as vaccination campaigns are beginning to gather pace.
Experts at both the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) met on Tuesday to discuss the vaccine, with the European organisation expected to publish its conclusions on Thursday.
While millions of doses of the vaccine developed with Oxford University have been administered, small numbers of people have developed blood clots, prompting countries including the EU’s three largest nations – Germany, France and Italy – to suspend injections.
The EMA insisted countries should continue using the vaccine.
“We are still firmly convinced that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19 with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death outweigh the risk of these side effects,” EMA chief Emer Cooke said on Tuesday.
Cooke noted however the regulator was “looking at adverse events associated with all vaccines”.
France and Italy welcomed the news.
The preliminary statements from the EMA “are encouraging”, read a joint statement from French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed he would be vaccinated “very quickly” with the AstraZeneca vaccine to give the public confidence in the jab if it is ruled safe by the EU medicines agency.
Castex also said new restrictions could be put in place for the Paris region, such as the weekend lockdowns already imposed in the Nice and Calais regions.
“We are in a worrying and critical situation and, clearly, measures of the type that have been used in other parts of the territory are on the table,” he told BFM TV in a live interview.
Covid, not jab, to blame?
In Britain, which has administered more than 11 million AstraZeneca doses, experts see no evidence of more frequent blood clots among the inoculated.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in The Times newspaper the shot “is safe and works extremely well”.
One British scientist argues Covid-19 itself and not the vaccine could be to blame, as it was known to cause such problems.
The “very likely explanation of at least some of the clotting disorders seen are a result of Covid-19 rather than the vaccine”, said Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
“Hence, even if there were a problem, acknowledged to be very rare with the AZ vaccine, the overall benefit would be so much greater than any speculative harm,” he said.
Coronavirus deaths across Europe meanwhile passed the 900,000 mark, making it the worst-hit global region in absolute terms, according to an AFP tally.
In the world’s hardest-hit country, the US, former president Donald Trump encouraged his Republican supporters – one of the main groups resistant to Covid-19 vaccines – to get their shots.
“I would recommend it,” Trump said in a late Tuesday interview on Fox News.
This was Trump’s most explicit endorsement for the national mass vaccination campaign since he left office in January. He and his wife, Melania, were vaccinated in early January without it being made public.
Meanwhile in Brazil the Covid-19 death toll broke another record when 2,841 people died in 24 hours, authorities said on Tuesday.
Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro appointed his fourth health minister since the pandemic began, has the world’s second highest Covid-19 infection rate after the US.
‘I’m an example’
More than 382 million doses of vaccine have been administered globally, the vast majority in wealthier countries while many poorer nations have yet to receive a single jab.
AstraZeneca’s shot, among the cheapest available, was billed as the vaccine of choice for poorer nations and the clot reports have had an impact beyond Europe.
Countries that have halted or delayed the rollout range from Indonesia and Venezuela to Sweden and the Netherlands.
But Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged his citizens to get the AstraZeneca shot. A scientific committee advising the government even extended its recommendation for AstraZeneca’s jab to people aged 65 and over.
And Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha was himself injected as his country lifted its own AstraZeneca suspension.
“I am an example today,” he said.
The pandemic spurred unprecedented efforts to develop vaccines, with a number of successful options now available.
On Tuesday, Brussels sealed a deal to step up deliveries of 10 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, now scheduled to arrive in the EU before July rather than in the third quarter.
And a new agreement for Germany’s IDT Biologika to help produce the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine would offer Europe greater certainty, Germany’s economy minister said.