More European Union Members Suspend AstraZeneca Vaccine
The European Union has a chance to put COVID-19 vaccinations back on track Friday after a chaotic week of vaccine suspensions, health scares and export-ban threats that lost the EU precious time.
Armed with an all-clear for AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccine by EU regulators, European leaders must get a grip on a vaccine drive that’s lagging the U.S. and the U.K. The rising pace of EU-wide cases and a renewed four-week lockdown in parts of France, including Paris, underscore the urgency of the threat.
EU governments including Germany, France and Italy said Thursday they’ll immediately resume administering the AstraZeneca shot, which several EU countries suspended after reports of blood clots in some patients.
The announcement by the EU’s drug regulator capped a tumultuous few days that featured an agonizing back-and-forth over vaccine safety and a threat by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to withhold vaccine exports to the U.K., reopening a clash with the former EU member country.
“If it was me, I would be vaccinated tomorrow,” European Medicines Agency Executive Director Emer Cooke said Thursday, confirming the conclusion that the AstraZeneca shot is safe. While the agency said the number of blood-clot cases is extremely rare and not deemed to be related to the vaccine, its experts couldn’t “definitively” rule out a link.
Europe can ill afford uncertainty about vaccine efficacy. The EU’s COVID-19 infection rate has increased for the past three weeks, to an average of 381 per 100,000 people, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
If it doesn’t speed up, the EU will need an estimated 16 months to cover 75 per cent of the population with a two-dose vaccine, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker. That compares with five months for the U.S. and the U.K.
After the EMA announcement, France said it will quickly resume vaccinations with the AstraZeneca shot. Prime Minister Jean Castex pledged to get the vaccine on Friday to help restore public confidence.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the decision “confirms the safety and reliability of the AstraZeneca vaccine.” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said his government is committed to “the greatest number of vaccinations in the shortest time possible.”
Other EU countries, including Luxembourg and Slovenia, will resume dispensing the vaccine and more are expected to follow suit. Sweden is keeping the AstraZeneca shot on hold to complete its own review.
In Britain, where there have been few concerns about the vaccine’s safety, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the Astra shot safe and said he would get one on Friday.
“The thing that isn’t safe is catching COVID,” he said.
Johnson brushed off an increasingly fraught relationship with the EU at a news conference in London. Amid tension over the race to secure vaccine supplies, Johnson and von der Leyen spoke by phone on Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Hours earlier, the EU Commission head had threatened to withhold vaccine exports to the U.K. and mooted pulling the EU’s emergency trigger, used only once in its history, to allow authorities to seize control of production and distribution.
The EMA’s caveat could prolong uncertainty that has surrounded the AstraZeneca since the trial phase, when a dosing mistake and different intervals between the two shots created confusion over its efficacy. A lack of data on its effectiveness in the elderly, which prompted many European countries initially to limit its use to younger people, compounded the confusion.
Asked if governments should restart vaccinations with the two-dose Astra shot, the EMA’s Cooke sought to provide clear guidance.
“This pandemic is costing lives,” she said. “We have vaccines that are safe and effective, that can help prevent death and hospitalization. We need to use those vaccines.”