How AstraZeneca suspension will halt Europe’s fight against COVID-19
Several European countries have suspended the use of the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.TBC

How AstraZeneca suspension will halt Europe’s fight against COVID-19

Several European countries have suspended the use of the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine which could hamper Europe's fight against the virus and halt its vaccination campaign.

Two days after Denmark, Norway, and Iceland temporarily suspended the use of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine shot, several European countries have joined the list even though the third wave of Coronavirus grips the continent.

European countries including Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Netherlands, Latvia, and Slovenia have decided to halt their rollout of the AstraZeneca shot on Monday. The temporary suspension is likely to affect the ongoing vaccination rollouts even as various new covid variants continue to spread in Europe.

The move comes after a report of vaccination side-effects, mainly about developing blood clots in the recipients who have received the medication, from the AstraZeneca vaccine shot.

A nurse holds a vial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the coronavirus disease at an infectious diseases hospital in Tbilisi on March 15, 2021.
A nurse holds a vial of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the coronavirus disease at an infectious diseases hospital in Tbilisi on March 15, 2021.AFP

Europe’s concerns over the blood clots come at a time when the entire region is in the grip of a third wave one year after the pandemic began and threatens to slow the vaccination campaign in Europe.

UK, which is leading the charge in terms of administering the AstraZeneca vaccine, has the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in Europe. According to the data by Public Health England, UK’s vaccination drive is helping in significantly reducing the number of COVID-19 cases in the country with a drop rate of around 70 per cent in infections who have had their first dose of vaccine. More than 11 million people have received the does which has resulted in reducing COVID-19 hospitalisation.

Oxford researchers have also argued that AstraZeneca is highly effective at reducing the number of severe Covid infections and could reduce deaths and hospitalizations.

In this backdrop when European countries are taking the temporary precautionary step, it will only impact the immunisation campaign at a time when COVID-19 variants have created havoc in the region.

According to London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd, the current country-based suspension of AstraZeneca will push Europe's efforts to vaccinate 75% of the population by two weeks or longer to September.

European Union, which is currently administrating 1.26 million doses per day on average, will take 16 months to cover 75% of its population with two-dose vaccines. The US, on the other hand, will take five months, and the UK likely to take seven months to vaccinate its three-fourth population, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker.

A medical worker receives a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the coronavirus disease at an infectious diseases hospital in Tbilisi on March 15, 2021
A medical worker receives a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the coronavirus disease at an infectious diseases hospital in Tbilisi on March 15, 2021AFP

The temporary suspension of AstraZeneca will also amplify the voices of people who are sceptical about the vaccine. Roberto Burioni, who is a leading Italian virologist, has said that people will expose them to bigger risks to avoid a negligible one.

“I understand if you decide not to get vaccinated afraid of inexplicable decisions, terrifying headlines, the indifference of pharmaceutical companies. I understand you and I am sorry because you will expose yourself to a serious risk to avoid a negligible one. I'm sorry but I can't help it anymore,” Burioni tweeted.

AstraZeneca, WHO & EMA downplay safety concerns

AstraZeneca, however, has strongly defended the use of vaccines reiterating that “safety of the public will always come first for the company.”

The company explained that “more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union (EU) and the UK with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca, there have been 15 events of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and 22 events of pulmonary embolism reported among those given the vaccine, based on the number of cases the Company has received as of March 8. This is much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed COVID-19 vaccines.”

World Health Organization (WHO) has also urged the countries to keep using the AstraZeneca jab as it is safe to use. “We do not want people to panic and we would, for the time being, recommend that countries continue vaccinating with AstraZeneca. So far, we do not find an association between these events and the vaccine," WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said, referring to reports of blood clots from several countries.

European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Monday also reiterated that countries should continue their rollouts, “The position of EMA’s safety committee PRAC is that the vaccine’s benefits continue to outweigh its risks and the vaccine can continue to be administered while the investigation of cases of thromboembolic events is ongoing,” EMA said in a statement.

Germany & France reports rise in Coronavirus cases

Meanwhile, the cases of the new infection are rising again in Europe. French Prime Minister Jean Castex told Parliament on Tuesday that the country had entered into the third wave of COVID-19 Pandemic after it reported 29, 975 new cases on Tuesday, one of the sharpest rise in infections since November last year.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex speaks during a session of questions to the government at The National Assembly in Paris on March 9, 2021.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex speaks during a session of questions to the government at The National Assembly in Paris on March 9, 2021. AFP

In Germany, Coronavirus cases are rising exponentially and the plan to lift the lockdown has taken a hit after a spike in the number of cases.

“Germany is in a third wave of the pandemic, driven by an easing of restrictions in recent weeks just as a more transmissible variant has spread,” Dirk Brockmann, an epidemiologist at the RKI, told Germany’s ARD television, reported Reuters.

Germany has also taken the steps to suspend AstraZeneca’s vaccine on Monday. Health Minister Jens Spahn has said the decision to suspend the AstraZeneca is a “precautionary measure.” According to Paul-Ehrlich Institut, Germany decided to suspend AstraZeneca shots because cases of a “rare cerebral vein thrombosis” had been reported in the country following vaccinations.

However, not all EU countries have suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Belgium, Poland, and the Czech Republic have said that they will continue to use AstraZeneca’s vaccine shot.

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