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Major EU Nations Halt AstraZeneca While WHO Insists the Jab is Safe


The EU’s largest countries joined a stream of states halting their rollouts of AstraZeneca jabs on Monday (15 March) over blood clot fears, as the World Health Organization and Europe’s medicines watchdog insisted it was safe to use. Both organisations will hold special meetings this week after a host of countries said they would stop using the vaccine pending further review. The fresh suspensions were a major blow to a global immunisation campaign that experts hope will help end a pandemic that has already killed over 2.6 million people and decimated the global economy.


The three largest EU countries — Germany, Italy and France — all paused rollouts on Monday and were later joined by Spain, Portugal, Slovenia and Latvia. Denmark and Norway stopped giving the shot last week after reporting isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and a low platelet count. Iceland and Bulgaria followed suit and Ireland and the Netherlands announced suspensions on Sunday.


The suspensions were not limited to Europe, with Indonesia also announcing a delay to its rollout of the jab, which is cheaper than its competitors and was billed as the vaccination of choice for poorer nations. But the WHO insisted countries should keep using the vaccine, adding that it had scheduled a meeting of its experts on Tuesday to discuss the vaccine’s safety.


“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. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said an advisory committee meeting on AstraZeneca would be held on Tuesday.


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 Monday. The EMA has said that as of 10 March, a total of 30 cases of blood clotting had been reported among close to 5 million people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot in the European Economic Area, which links 30 European countries.


Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said the decisions by France, Germany and others looked baffling. “The data we have suggests that numbers of adverse events related to blood clots are the same (and possibly, in fact lower) in vaccinated groups compared to unvaccinated populations,” he said, adding that halting a vaccination programme had consequences.