Germany, France and Italy have announced they will stop administrating the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine over blood clot fears.
They join a host of European countries that have suspended use of the shot amid concerns there is a link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and an increased risk of developing blood clots, which can cause heart attacks.
But the World Health Organisation is standing by AstraZeneca’s vaccine, saying there has been no evidence the inoculations have caused incidents of bleeding, blood clots and a low platelet count.
“The greatest threat that most countries face now is lack of access to vaccines,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said in a press briefing on Tuesday morning (Australian time).
AstraZeneca said earlier it had conducted a review covering more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and Britain that had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots.
Its reassurance has not been enough to stop the German health ministry, the Italian medicines authority and French president Emmanuel Macron from suspending use of the AstraZeneca vaccine – as least as a “precaution” as the European Medicines Agency investigates.
It came after Denmark and Norway stopped giving the shot last week, with Iceland and Bulgaria following suit. Ireland and the Netherlands announced suspensions by Monday morning (Australian time).
The moves by some of Europe’s largest and most populous countries will deepen concerns about the slow roll-out of vaccines in the region, which has been plagued by shortages due to problems producing vaccines including AstraZeneca’s.
Australia has about 700,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and about 400,000 doses of the Pfizer version.
Health Minister Greg Hunt last week reassured Australians there was no evidence to suggest “a reduction in the effectiveness” of either vaccine in “preventing severe disease and death”.
‘Not a political decision’
The European Medicines Agency said that, as of March 10, 30 cases of blood clotting had been reported among close to five million people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot in the European Economic Area, which links 30 European countries.
It said there was no indication the events were caused by the vaccination and that the number of reported blood clots was no higher than seen in the general population.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that although the risk of blood clots was low, it could not be ruled out.
“This is a professional decision, not a political one,” Mr Spahn said adding he was following a recommendation of the Paul Ehrlich Institute (PEI), Germany’s vaccine regulator.
“After new reports of thromboses of the cerebral veins in connection with the vaccination in Germany and Europe, the PEI considers further investigations to be necessary,” said the German health ministry.
“The European Medicines Agency EMA will decide whether and how the new findings will affect the approval of the vaccine,” it added.
France said it was suspending the vaccine’s use pending an assessment by the EU medicine regulator, due on Tuesday.
Italy said its halt was a “precautionary and temporary measure” pending the regulator’s ruling.
Austria and Spain have stopped using particular batches and prosecutors in the northern Italian region of Piedmont earlier seized 393,600 doses following the death of a man hours after he was vaccinated.
It was the second region to do so after Sicily, where two people had died shortly after having their shots.
AstraZeneca’s shot was among the first and cheapest to be developed and launched at volume since the coronavirus was first identified in central China at the end of 2019 and is set to be the mainstay of vaccination programs in much of the developing world.
The WHO said its advisory panel was reviewing reports related to the vaccine and would release its findings as soon as possible.