Europe’s rush to ban the AstraZeneca vaccine over sporadic reports of blood clots may have cost ‘thousands’ of lives, a British expert has said, as EU regulators gave their definitive verdict that the jab is safe and effective.
A series of countries including Germany, France and Italy have already U-turned and said they will resume AstraZeneca shots after EU safety experts said there was no increased risk of blood clots.
But Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said the temporary stoppage in more than a dozen EU countries was likely to ‘translate into many, many lives lost due to Covid’.
‘Because of this delay, and because of the uncertainty now of the vaccine in some people’s minds…I think it will probably run to thousands of lives that have been lost,’ he told Times Radio.
Italy has already had to scrap 200,000 injections because of the AstraZeneca delay, while a survey published this week found that 49 per cent of Italians had their confidence in vaccines shaken by the furore.
And the delays will continue in Norway and Sweden where authorities have said they will continue their own investigations despite the EU, WHO, UK and AstraZeneca’s findings that the jab is safe.
Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia and Bulgaria have all said they will resume vaccinations, as a third wave of infections gathers momentum on much of the continent.
France announced new lockdown measures for Paris last night while the Czech Republic has extended its own shutdown until Easter as vaccines come too slowly to keep the EU’s 447million people safe.
The countries in green have already reinstated the AstraZeneca vaccine while those in red have yet to make an announcement or say that they will not immediately restart the jabs. Those in orange banned a particular batch of doses, while the countries in grey – including the UK – remained unmoved by the blood clot fears all along
The European Medicines Agency press conference this afternoon, at which the Executive Director Emer Cooke (left) announced: ‘This is a safe and effective vaccine’
A man gets his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday in Belgium, one of the countries which has resisted the rush to suspend the jab over sporadic cases of blood clots
The UK is still streets ahead of EU countries in distributing vaccine doses, with Hungary outperforming some of its neighbours after breaking away and buying its own shots from China and Russia
The EU’s slow progress on vaccinations is putting countries at risk of devastating third waves, with nations including Germany, Italy and France all seeing infection rates climb again this month
This picture emerged from a German vaccination centre where there were reports of tears as 41 AstraZeneca doses were discarded following the government’s decision to suspend injections
Italy became the first nation to announce a humiliating u-turn following the EMA’s report, with premier Mario Draghi announcing that it will be restarting the use of AstraZeneca vaccines from Friday afternoon.
Draghi said in a statement: ‘The administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine will resume tomorrow. The government’s priority remains to carry out as many vaccinations as possible in the shortest possible time.’
However, Sweden and Norway will keep the ban for the time being despite the report.
John Carlson, of the Swedish Public Health Agency, said the body ‘needs a few days to analyse the situation and how the AstraZeneca vaccine can be used in Sweden. Next week we will say the position we are taking on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.’
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health said it ‘took note’ of the EMA’s ruling, but it was ‘premature’ to draw conclusions and it would announce its own opinion by the end of next week.
Emer Cooke, the chief of the EMA, had told a press conference on Thursday: ‘This is a safe and effective vaccine. When you vaccinate millions of people, it’s inevitable that rare or serious instances of illnesses will occur in the time immediately following the vaccination.’
The agency said that it had not uncovered any issues with specific batches of the AstraZeneca jab and that incidences of blood clots reported after vaccination were lower than would be expected in the overall population.
The equivalent British watchdog just hours earlier said that after a ‘thorough and careful review’ it had found no evidence that blood clots were occurring at a higher rate among those that had received the vaccine compared to the normal rate in the population.
The EU’s blood clot fiasco has added to the bloc’s vaccination chaos after supply problems, bureaucratic health systems and stashes of unused AstraZeneca shots left the bloc languishing behind Britain in the vaccine race.
AstraZeneca’s product was already struggling for popularity in Europe after top officials feuded with the firm in a post-Brexit row over supplies and then cast unfounded doubts on its efficacy in over-65s.
The EU is threatening to block shipments to Britain as it plays hardball over supplies, prompting anger in Whitehall with cabinet minister Robert Jenrick saying today he was ‘surprised and disappointed’ by Brussels’ stance.
But Europe is struggling to shift the jabs that it does have – with former Finnish PM Alexander Stubb claiming that 40 per cent of the vaccines bought by the EU are ‘laying around in various storage in European member states’.
The EMA said it could not definitively rule out a link between blood clot incidents and the vaccine in its investigation into 30 cases of a rare blood clotting condition.
But Cooke said in a briefing that the ‘clear’ conclusion of the review was that the vaccine ‘benefits in protecting people from COVID-19 with the associated risk of death or hospitalisation outweighs the possible risks.’
The agency will however update its guidance to include an explanation about the potential risks on both the patient leaflet and in the information for healthcare professionals, she said.
Sabine Straus, chair of the Pharmacovigilance and Risk Assessment Committee (PRAC) which investigated the blood clotting cases, said: ‘A number of thromboembolic events after vaccination is lower than the expected in the general population and PRAC has concluded that there is not increase in the overall risk of blood clots with this vaccine.
‘Moreover, because the vaccine is effective in preventing Covid-19 disease, which in itself is a cause of blood clots, it likely reduces the risk of blood clots overall.’
Macron and Italian premier Mario Draghi have both vowed to ‘promptly restart the administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine’ if the AstraZeneca jab was cleared by regulators today.
But the head of a Spanish vaccinology group warned that the suspensions have already caused ‘fear and panic’, telling El Pais that ‘we will have to move heaven and earth to recover the credibility of this vaccine’.
Sweden says it will not immediately reinstate AstraZeneca shots despite the EMA’s findings on Thursday. It comes with infections rising again (left) while deaths are still significantly lower than the peak (right)
Ursula von der Leyen has told Britain to hand over doses of AstraZeneca vaccine or else risk seeing jab exports from the continent blocked, despite the fact that most of Europe has halted its use
Figures from AstraZeneca and the European Medicines Agency show the number of blood clot-related conditions from 17million doses dished out in the UK and Europe up to March 13
Macron is under fire in France with opponents saying that ‘when you hit the emergency brake, with a weekend lockdown for example, it’s because you’ve failed with all the rest’.
‘Let’s be clear, we’re in a third wave mostly down to the rise of this famous British variant,’ Macron said on Wednesday after a day of talks with medical staff and local mayors in the Paris area.
The French president had previously been criticised for rubbishing the AstraZeneca vaccine as ‘quasi-ineffective’ in older people in what was seen as an act of post-Brexit ill will.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam weighed in to defend the vaccine on Wednesday, saying that the jabs ‘don’t save lives if they’re in the fridge’.
Van-Tam said there was ‘a lot of evidence emerging now that is reassuring, that there is no overall excess signal or increased risk’ of blood clots or related events.
The World Health Organization also said on Wednesday that it was better to take the AstraZeneca vaccine than not – adding that it was looking into available data on the shot.
The cases which have surfaced include a handful of people taken to hospital in Norway, an Austrian nurse who died soon after the shot and a specific type of blood clot which Germany says is happening more than usual.
But none of these have been proven to result from the vaccine, and both UK and EU scientists have said the number of blood clots overall does not seem to be higher than in the general population.
Panic set in amid reports of blood clots after AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but data shows the same number of clots occurred after Pfizer vaccines – which Europe continues to use – and that none of the clots are actually linked to the shots
This chart shows that deaths during the UK’s second wave (in red) have come down more rapidly than the first (blue), hinting at a visible effect of Britain’s rapid vaccination campaign
Dr Stephen Griffin, a medical professor at the University of Leeds, said that ‘even in the worst-case scenario’ if there were found to be a link, the benefits of using the vaccine would still ‘likely vastly outweigh’ the risks.
‘It should also be noted that nationwide gestures such as this are bound to fuel hesitancy, or more extreme anti-vaccine sentiment, further undermining the vaccination effort,’ he said.
Scientists say that the likelihood of ‘random clotting-related events’ might be higher because mainly older and clinically vulnerable people have been given the jabs so far.
As doubts continue over Europe’s AstraZeneca campaign, calls have continued for the EU to turn to Russia for its Sputnik V jabs in what would amount to a major propaganda coup for the Kremlin.
Three state premiers in Germany – all from the former East Germany where Russian-made vaccines were commonplace – have this week voiced support for Sputnik V, which has not yet been ruled on by EU regulators.
Meanwhile, Czech president Milos Zeman has blamed his country’s high death toll on the failure to use non-Western jabs such as Sputnik V and the Chinese-made Sinopharm option, according to Czech media.
Amos Garcia, president of the Spanish Vaccinology Association, said it will be difficult for governments to rebuild trust in the overall coronavirus vaccination program, no matter what the EMA announces.
‘The problem when a vaccine is put in doubt is not that it affects that vaccine, but that it affects the whole vaccination world,’ he said.
‘Possibly there has been an excess of zeal’ among governments like Spain’s that suspended vaccinations, he said, while Spanish health minister Carolina Darias defended the decision to put a hold on the shots.
The AstraZeneca row comes amid fury at EU chief Ursula von der Leyen over her threat to ban vaccine exports to countries such as Britain which have made more progress than the 28-member union.
Von der Leyen was rebuked by UK ministers after airing frustration over a lack of deliveries from AstraZeneca plants in Britain and saying that ‘all options are on the table’.
‘We are in the crisis of the century, and I’m not ruling out any anything for now, because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible,’ the German former defence minister said.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said Britain had a legal right to doses of the vaccine that it helped develop in the UK.
‘We set up the supply chain, not just here in the UK but indeed, we helped set up the supply chain in the EU,’ he said at a Downing Street news conference.
‘We legally signed a contract for delivery of the first 100 million doses here for people in the UK, as you would expect, both to ensure that people in the UK can get their jab and also because this is a UK-funded, UK-delivered vaccine.’
The Department of Health and Social Care said 25,273,226 in the UK have received their first dose of AstraZeneca of Pfizer vaccine between December 8 and March 16
A researcher working on the AstraZeneca vaccine in a laboratory at Oxford’s Jenner Institute, which helped to develop the shot – leading Britain to say that it has a right to the doses it ordered despite the EU’s threat to block exports
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused the European Commission of brinkmanship, calling on von der Leyen to explain her comments.
‘I think it takes some explaining because the world’s watching… It also cuts across the direct assurances that we had from the Commission,’ Raab said. ‘We expect those assurances and legal, contracted supply to be respected.
He said von der Leyen’s comments contradicted assurances he had been given by Commission vice president Valdis Dombrovskis and by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
‘We were reliably informed that they weren’t aware of any plans to restrict lawfully contracted supply to the UK,’ Raab said.
‘Keeping supply chains open, keeping trade and vital supplies of medical equipment and vaccines is critically important,’ he said. ‘We’ve all been arguing for this’.
EU leaders were accused of playing politics after a series of governments suspended the AstraZeneca jabs in quick succession, with Italy admitting that the move was a political one.
German health minister Jens Spahn was accused by the opposition of caving in to political pressure by announcing the stoppage on Monday, which another German MP described as a potential ‘catastrophe’.
‘If AstraZeneca were completely dropped, that would be a catastrophe for Germany but also for the EU… there’s no other vaccine that can replace it before the summer,’ said epidemiologist-turned-politician Karl Lauterbach.
Frank Ulrich Montgomery, a German doctor and council chair of the World Medical Association, warned: ‘The bottom line is that this good and effective vaccine is hardly going to gain higher acceptance as a result of this kerfuffle and the suspension in many countries’.
At a Downing Street press conference last night, Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) said Britain had a legal right to doses of the vaccine that it helped develop in the UK
In France, a medical union condemned Macron’s move to suspend vaccinations on Monday, accusing him of ‘giving in to panic’ and failing to consult doctors.
The syndicate of private doctors ‘believes that the subject of vaccination and the fight against Covid-19 is too serious to be left in the hands of politicians’, it said.
‘No clear instructions are given to doctors, who find themselves in the greatest embarrassment in the face of patients who are made more sceptical every day by the government’s multiple communication errors’.
Meanwhile the head of Italy’s medicines authority contradicted the government in Rome, which also suspended the shot, by saying that ‘the choice is a political one’ and declaring that the vaccine is safe.
Nicola Magrini said there had been eight deaths and four cases of serious side-effects in Italy – which has suffered 103,432 confirmed deaths from Covid-19 – but no link to the AstraZeneca shots has been proven.
‘We got to the point of a suspension because several European countries, including Germany and France, preferred to interrupt vaccinations… to put them on hold in order to carry out checks. The choice is a political one,’ Magrini said.
The EU’s lack of progress means that while Britain moves closer to lifting restrictions, many European countries face the prospect of lockdowns being tightened again in the coming weeks.
The vaccine concerns come as several European countries face alarming third waves of the disease which are forcing them to extend or toughen lockdown measures.
In the Czech Republic, tight travel restrictions have been extended until after Easter in a bid to slow the spread of the British variant.
The country currently has nearly 9,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital and almost 2,000 in intensive care, both figures close to an all-time high.
‘We’re not in a situation to afford any major changes,’ health minister Jan Blatny announced. ‘I’m terribly sorry about that.’
The UK strain is also blamed for resurgences in France and Germany, with Emmanuel Macron saying that ‘this famous British variant’ was the reason for the third wave in Paris.
The French capital has been put under month-long restrictions with shops closed and people once again required to fill out forms to justify their movements.
France’s restaurants, bars, cinemas, gyms, museums, theatres and concert halls have been shut down for almost five months, and will remain closed.
However, a nationwide curfew that was put in place to stave off a third lockdown will be moved from 6pm to 7pm to account for longer evenings, the government says.