World Health Organization safety experts are preparing to meet over the AstraZeneca/Oxford coronavirus vaccine, whose rollout has been halted in several European countries over blood clot fears.
The three largest EU nations – Germany, Italy and France – joined others in suspending the shot Monday, dealing a blow to the global immunisation campaign against a disease that has killed more than 2.6 million people.
The World Health Organization, AstraZeneca, and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have insisted the shot is safe, and that there is no link between the vaccine and reported blood clots.
“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 Monday.
“So far, we do not find an association between these events and the vaccine.”
The EMA said in a statement that “many thousands of people develop blood clots annually in the EU for different reasons” and that the number of incidents in vaccinated people “seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population”.
In a statement, the EMA “the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19, with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks of side effects.”
WHO and EMA experts on Tuesday will separately discuss data from AstraZeneca vaccinations, and the European regulator will hold an extraordinary meeting on Thursday to decide on any further action.
Experts have said that the numbers of blood clots and thrombocytopenia cases – a rarer condition in which people do not make enough platelets – in people who have been vaccinated is no higher than in the population that has not received the jab.
The International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis, representing medical experts around the world, said on Friday that “the small number of reported thrombotic events relative to the millions of administered Covid-19 vaccinations does not suggest a direct link”.
AstraZeneca’s shot, among the cheapest available, was billed as the vaccine of choice for poorer nations and the clot reports have had an impact beyond Europe.
Indonesia delayed its AstraZeneca rollout on Monday, and Venezuela announced it would not authorise the jab over fears of “complications”.
However, Australia has said it will continue to use the vaccine. The country’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said in an emailed statement the government remained confident in the vaccine as there was no evidence that it caused blood clots though the side-effects reported would be investigated as a “precautionary measure”.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, on Monday also urged citizens to get the AstraZeneca shot after reports of hesitancy based on the suspensions in Europe.
The vaccine was developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford in Britain, where more than 11m doses have been administered without any major problems.
The controversy over the virus comes as a number of countries are battling worrying surges in coronavirus infections.
Norway’s capital Oslo announced tougher measures to stop the spread of the virus, including closing secondary schools, as it reported a record number of cases last week.
“These will be the most intrusive measures taken by Oslo during the pandemic,” said mayor Raymond Johansen. “It’s tough, it’s difficult but it’s necessary”.
And a fresh spike pushed the main Covid-19 hospital in Bosnia to the edge, forcing it to declare a state of emergency.
“The staff is exhausted,” hospital director Sebija Izetbegovic wrote on Facebook. “We will continue to do what is possible to save lives, but the situation is really critical. More and more of our employees are sick.”
Most of Italy re-entered lockdown on Monday, with schools, restaurants, shops and museums closed, while intensive care doctors in Germany issued an urgent appeal for new restrictions to avoid a third wave in the country.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro – widely panned for his coronavirus scepticism – appointed a new health minister Monday as the country reeled from another deadly surge in infections and deaths.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report
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