Experts who argue that the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University is safe – and certainly safer than getting Covid-19 – circled their wagons on Tuesday, but not before more countries suspended the jab.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) – which approved the vaccine in January – remains convinced of the safety of AstraZeneca’s product, the organization’s chief said on Tuesday.
“A situation like this is not unexpected,” executive director Emer Cooke said, referring to several cases of blood clots that had reportedly developed following an injection. “When you vaccinate millions of people, it’s inevitable that you have rare or serious incidences of illnesses that occur after vaccination.”
Fear has been spreading about the jab as more countries report incidences of blood clots in people after receiving a vaccination. The fears have grown to the point where several European countries have shelved the product, complicating already troubled vaccination drives.
The rate of reported blood clots amongst vaccinated people seemed to broadly mirror the rate in the general population, Cooke explained. The agency had also received similar numbers from other vaccines from across the world, she said.
However, EMA had launched a “very rigorous analysis” to determine whether the vaccines might have caused the events, she said.
There had also been speculation as to whether specific batches of the vaccine produced might have caused the blood clots. However, this seemed “unlikely,” Cooke said, adding that the agency would present its findings on Thursday.
“We are still firmly convinced that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19 with its associated risk of hospitalization and death outweigh the risk of these side effects,” she said.
Cyprus, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Sweden and Venezuela on Tuesday joined the list of countries suspending the use of the AstraZeneca jab. Those announcements came on top of previous ones from Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain.
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A comparatively shorter list of countries stuck by AstraZeneca’s jab on Tuesday. Lithuania was one. Thailand was another, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha made a point of getting vaccinated before the cameras on Tuesday.
“I think this will give people confidence to receive the government’s vaccines,” Prayuth said after receiving the injection.
Countries that suspended vaccinations using the AstraZeneca shot may have fallen victim to a media-induced panic that could be a result of misinformation, a Polish government official responsible for the country’s vaccination campaign said.
“It is possible that we are dealing here with a planned disinformation campaign and a brutal fight of medical firms,” Michal Dworczyk told PAP agency on Tuesday.
“It is worth remembering that, apart from firms registered in the EU, Britain and the US, there are other firms that are striving to have their vaccines used,” the official said.
To date, neither the European Medicines Agency (EMA) nor domestic Polish institutions responsible for medicines safety have recommended suspending the use of the British-Swedish vaccine, he noted. Poland continues vaccinations with AstraZeneca.
Dworczyk also said he was “confident that many of these countries will soon return” to using AstraZeneca for vaccinations, which would constitute proof that Poland made the right call “through thinking rather than using a herd instinct.”
The EMA has launched an investigation into the vaccine, as have national health authorities in several countries.
The British vaccine regulator also said the vaccine, which AstraZeneca developed in partnership with Oxford University, is not responsible for blood clotting, based on available evidence.
The suspension added yet another concern European countries have about AstraZeneca’s vaccine, as worries about its safety have been circulating for weeks. At the same time, EU officials have been enraged at the company for failing to deliver batches as scheduled.
Experts sharply criticized the countries’ decision to suspend the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“I think it is a disaster for the vaccination uptake in Europe, which is already on slightly unsteady ground in some countries,” Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at London’s Imperial College, told the BBC on Tuesday.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it would meet on Tuesday to review the available safety data on the vaccine, though its chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said there was no evidence of a link so far.
Meanwhile, German pharmaceutical company BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer agreed to accelerate the delivery of 10 million Covid-19 vaccine doses.
The doses, initially foreseen for the third and fourth quarter of the year, will now arrive by the end of June, according to the European Commission.
“It gives member states room to manoeuvre and possibly fill gaps in deliveries,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement.