The suspension of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine rollout across much of Europe will likely be lifted soon.
- Four of the EU’s largest nations suspended the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine after reports of illnesses among some recipients
- The pause on the vaccine has coincided with a rise in coronavirus infections in Italy, France and Germany
- Health experts fear the damage done to public confidence will lead to unnecessary deaths from COVID-19
But some experts believe the damage to public confidence will be long-lasting and result in unnecessary deaths.
Fears about blood clots haven’t yet been backed up by evidence, but doctors say they are likely to fuel further public concern about the vaccine at a time when Europe can ill afford it.
Countries like Italy, France and Germany are all experiencing dangerous spikes in COVID-19 cases, yet they have all paused their rollouts of the AstraZeneca product.
In Australia, the federal government says the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine will continue, despite the concerns in Europe.
The European Medicines Agency looks likely to endorse the safety of the vaccine on Thursday (European time).
But Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said the damage was done.
“You cannot stop and start vaccination programs without losing some public confidence,” he told the ABC.
“There will be many, many people in Europe, [who] feel now that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is second best … which is patently untrue.”
Professor Harnden, who is also an expert in primary care at the University of Oxford, which helped develop the vaccine, said the decision would compound mistrust in the vaccine, which some European countries previously withheld from their older populations, citing a lack of data.
“I have no doubt that Europeans have died because of some of these decisions,” he said.
“If you don’t get a vaccine and you’re vulnerable and you’re exposed to it [coronavirus], you may die as a result.”
Vaccine suspension a ‘disaster’
Cases have risen sharply in Italy, which has entered another lockdown.
On Tuesday, Italy recorded 20,396 new cases and 502 deaths.
Stefano Nava, chief of respiratory and critical care at Bologna’s Sant’ Orsola hospital — Italy’s biggest — said the last four weeks had been “out of control”.
He said the third wave had presented new challenges, which he partly blamed on the UK variant.
“The patients are younger and sometimes sicker,” Professor Nava told the ABC.
Italy has administered more than 6.6 million vaccine doses, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
Professor Nava said vaccines were showing encouraging signs of reducing hospital admissions in the elderly.
However, he said the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine would undermine public confidence.
“It will have a huge effect,” he said.
Italy has been given access to 1,512,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to the ECDC.
So far, it has administered 1,077,868 doses from that supply, a significantly higher proportion than when the country blocked exports of 250,000 doses to Australia earlier this month.
Professor Nava is worried that having increased their uptake of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Italians won’t want their second dose.
“Now people are really convinced that the AstraZeneca vaccine kills people,” he said.
“This is not what you should say when you don’t have any proof.”
The vast majority of Italy’s vaccinations are performed using Pfizer-BioNTech jabs, which are not affected by the suspension.
Does the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine cause blood clots?
AstraZeneca says that out of 17 million people vaccinated with its product in the UK and European Union, just 37 cases of blood clots have been reported.
There were 15 cases of deep vein thrombosis, and 22 cases of pulmonary embolism.
The company insists there is no link between the vaccine and the clots, and the European Medicines Agency appears to agree.
“At present, there is no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions,” the EMA’s executive director Emer Cooke said this week.
Both the EMA and the World Health Organization say the benefits outweigh the risks.
However, the EMA’s expert committee is reviewing each case and will announce its findings on Thursday.
“This requires a very rigorous analysis of all the data,” Ms Cooke said.
In Germany, nearly half the 3 million AstraZeneca doses it has secured remain unused.
The health ministry said there were eight blood clotting cases potentially connected to the AstraZeneca vaccine, three of which were fatal.
German health minister Jens Spahn said the suspension was a necessary precautionary measure.
“All of us are very aware of the consequences of this decision and we did not take this decision lightly,” he said on Tuesday.
Could the suspension lead to more deaths?
Other European countries suspending the AstraZeneca rollout include Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania and Spain.
“I think that once one [country] stops doing it, then they get a collective anxiety,” Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the ABC.
“They don’t want to be standing out.”
In Germany, case numbers have surged 20 per cent in a week, according to the Robert Koch Institute.
On Wednesday, the country recorded 13,435 new cases and 249 deaths.
France is also grappling with rising case numbers.
Almost 30,000 were reported on Tuesday, and Prime Minister John Castex said the country was facing a “sort of third wave”.
Professor Evans said he did not believe there was any link between the blood clots and the AstraZeneca vaccine.
And he warned that the suspensions in Europe could do more harm than good.
“If you pause this vaccine and there is a lot of the COVID disease about … then you’re going to increase the death rate.”
What’s behind Europe’s mistrust of the vaccine?
The UK has vastly outperformed Europe in its vaccination rollout.
It has administered 39 doses per 100 people, according to figures compiled by Our World in Data.
That’s compared with 11 doses per 100 in France, Germany, and Italy.
European leaders are under pressure to accelerate the rollout, and many blame AstraZeneca for not providing enough doses.
And this isn’t the first time some have questioned the quality of the UK-developed vaccine.
In February, French president Emmanuel Macron described it as “quasi-effective” in the over-65s, and France recommended that it not be given to people in that age group.
Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands and Spain made similar recommendations, citing a lack of older participants in clinical trials.
However, they reversed those decisions once real-world data became available from the UK, where more than 11 million people have been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca product.
UK studies showed that a single dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines reduced the risk of hospital admissions by more than 80 per cent in people aged 80 or over.
Professor Harnden said while he respected the decisions of European governments, they would have serious consequences.
“They have large portions of their vulnerable elderly population unprotected because of an incorrect decision that they made about delaying the AstraZeneca dose in the elderly population,” he said.
And he warned that the effects of European decisions would not be confined to the continent.
“It’s going to affect us all, ultimately, if we have a huge amount of transmission and infection within Europe.”