More countries have joined the growing list of those who have suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine over fears around blood clots.
Sweden, Latvia, Luxembourg and Cyprus on Tuesday said they were suspending the rollout, following in the footsteps of more than a dozen countries including France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands.
AstraZeneca, which developed the vaccine along with Oxford University, insists there is no risk. But World Health Organisation (WHO) experts are convening on Tuesday to review the vaccine’s safety and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will release the results of an investigation on Thursday.
The EMA on Tuesday reiterated that there was “no indication” the clots were linked to the vaccine, with executive director Emer Cooke saying she remained “firmly convinced” that the benefits of the jab outweighed any risks.
“While the investigation is ongoing, currently, we are still firmly convinced that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risks of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks,” she said.
France’s president Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that the nation was taking the step “as a precaution, hoping that we can resume it quickly if the judgement of the EMA allows it.”
RELATED: Questions raised over vaccine safety
The WHO has repeatedly said it is confident in the safety of the vaccine and that countries should keep using it, and director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that there was no evidence of a link between the jab and the blood clot incidents.
“It’s very important to understand that, yes, we should continue to be using the AstraZeneca vaccine,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said.
The drug maker itself said there was no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots and other “thromboembolic” events among 17 million people who had already received the shot in the UK and the European Union.
Many are concerned the pause in vaccine delivery will further slow down the global rollout, with Europe already hit by shortages. The AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper and easier to transport than many other options because it not not need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures.
The news has sparked renewed worry in Australia, where the much-anticipated vaccine program kicked off last month, with calls from some to also hit pause while the matter is investigated. But the Australian health authorities maintain the jab is safe.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan on Tuesday called for the Australian rollout to be paused while the “serious concerns” were looked into. MP Craig Kelly joined the call, saying Australia could “afford to pause for a week” and adding: “Surely it’s the precautionary principle must apply.”
He said the Pfizer vaccine rollout should continue.
But Treasurer Josh Frydenberg repeated the WHO’s stance that there was “no evidence” the vaccine had caused clots and told ABC RN that the UK has distributed more than 12 million doses of the jab “and they haven’t seen those trends.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government continued to “clearly and unequivocally” support the AstraZeneca rollout.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly also dismissed the concerns and told reporters there was no signal of a link, adding: “I can absolutely say I remain confident in the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
But he said the Government would “take it seriously … (and) investigate”.
Australian health experts wrote in The Conversation that 17,000 Australians suffer a thromboembolic event every year, so some will coincidentally develop a blood clot shortly after receiving a vaccine. “This doesn’t mean it was caused by the vaccine.”
Swinburne University’s dean and professor School of Health Sciences Bruce Thompson said that around 350 million vaccine doses have been given worldwide and no recipients had faced death or hospitalisation for COVID.
He said there was “no evidence at all” that the blood clot reports were associated with the vaccine. “To stop a vaccination based on a hunch will lead to an increase in COVID deaths.”
Paul Griffin, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Queensland said he believed there was an “over-reaction” in Europe and Australia should focus on “evidence-based decisions”,
“This vaccine has proven very safe and effective in large clinical trials.”
There have been no reports of blood clots among those who have received their first vaccine dose in Australia.
HOW THE SCARE UNFOLDED
Monday March 8 – The first halt of a batch of the AstraZeneca vaccine is announced by Austria following the death of a 49-year-old nurse from “severe bleeding disorders”. Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Luxembourg also suspend the use of doses.
Thursday March 11 – Denmark is the first country to say it will suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a precautionary measure over fears of blood clots in vaccinated people. Iceland and Norway follow the same day, temporarily suspending use of all their supply of the vaccine. Italy’s medicines regulator also bans the use of a batch as a precaution, triggering a similar decision from Romania.
Friday March 12 – Bulgaria suspends the use of the vaccine as it investigates the death of a woman with several underlying conditions who recently received the jab. An initial probe had suggested the woman died from heart failure and an autopsy found no link with the vaccination. Thailand abruptly delays the start of its rollout of the vaccine, stopping Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha from getting the first jab. The Democratic Republic of Congo, also due to start administering the vaccine, postpones its campaign citing “precautionary measures”.
Saturday March 13 – Norwegian health officials report three more cases of blood clots or brain haemorrhages in younger people who received the jab, but say they cannot yet say they were vaccine-related.
Sunday March 14 – Ireland and the Netherlands join the list. Italy’s northern Piedmont region suspends use of the vaccine after the death of a teacher who had received it the day before.
Monday March 15 – Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Indonesia and Venezuela suspend use of the vaccine. A health worker in Norway dies of a brain haemorrhage after receiving the vaccine, though no direct link to the jab has been established.
Tuesday March 16 – Sweden, Latvia, Luxembourg and Cyprus on Tuesday suspend the rollout. The WHO is due to meet today and the EMA to deliver a report on Thursday.
— With AFP