Europe’s medical regulator said Thursday the AstraZeneca vaccine is “safe and effective” and not associated with a higher blood clot risk, after more than a dozen countries paused rollouts over health fears.
The closely-watched announcement comes after the WHO and Britain’s health watchdog both said the vaccine was safe, adding that it was far riskier to not get the shot as several countries face a worrying rise in coronavirus cases.
“The committee has come to a clear scientific conclusion: this is a safe and effective vaccine,” European Medicines Agency (EMA) chief Emer Cooke said Thursday after a probe by the body’s safety committee.
“The committee also concluded that the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of thromboembolic events or blood clots,” she added.
However, the agency “cannot rule out definitively” a link to a rare clotting disorder.
The UK health regulator on Thursday also said there were no links between blood clots and the AstraZeneca jab, or the Pfizer vaccine.
“There is no evidence that blood clots in veins is occurring more than would be expected in the absence of vaccination, for either vaccine,” said June Raine, chief executive of the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
And the World Health Organization (WHO) said again Thursday it was better to take the AstraZeneca vaccine than not, after saying it was looking into available data on the shot.
– ‘Situation critical’ –
The furore around the jab has marred the global vaccine drive aimed at ending a pandemic that has killed more than 2.6 million people, and comes as several countries report jumps in new cases.
France recorded its highest daily caseload in nearly four months Wednesday, with the authorities set to announce on Thursday new measures.
“Let’s be clear, we’re in a third wave mostly down to the rise of this famous British variant,” French President Emmanuel Macron said, referring to the more-contagious variant first detected in the UK.
“The situation is critical. It’s going to be very hard until mid-April.”
Bulgaria and Ukraine readied for tougher restrictions to stem rising cases, while the WHO issued a grim update on rising infections in Central Europe and the Balkans.
– ‘Italy’s Wuhan’ –
So far, more than 399 million coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered globally, mostly in wealthier nations that have secured contracts with drug makers.
AstraZeneca’s shot, among the cheapest available and easier to store and transport than some of its rivals, has been billed as the vaccine of choice for poorer nations.
It is currently a vital part of Covax, which was set up to procure Covid-19 vaccines and ensure their equitable distribution around the world.
Countries ranging from France to Venezuela and Indonesia paused the rollout of the jab after several reports emerged of blood clots among people who had received the vaccine.
The head of WHO Africa said Thursday she hoped the controversy surrounding the British-Swedish jab would not deter people from getting the vaccine on the continent, where more than 16 million vaccine doses, mostly AstraZeneca, have been distributed under the Covax scheme.
“A lot of countries have doubts” about AstraZeneca, Matshidiso Moeti told reporters.
“But we hope that will not create doubts around anti-Covid vaccines in general.”
And in Britain, which has not halted the jab, officials insisted that an expected vaccine shortfall at the end of the month would not scupper plans to lift virus restrictions as the government has promised.
Italy, the first European country to become engulfed by the pandemic, held a national day of mourning Thursday, with a ceremony in Bergamo, the northern city that became known as “Italy’s Wuhan”.
Italy chose March 18 for the memorial to coincide with the day in 2020 when the army had to step in to carry away scores of coffins from Bergamo’s overwhelmed crematorium.
Images of coffin-laden camouflaged trucks crossing the city at night quickly became one of the symbols of the pandemic and still haunt the country today.
– ‘Aggressive interventions’ –
Meanwhile, vaccination efforts were under way in Chile, where 49 scientists and members of the armed forces working at a research station in the icy wastes of Antarctica got the jab, the first inoculations on the southernmost continent.
Antarctica was one of the last places on Earth to be affected by the virus, but on December 21, an outbreak was reported at a Chilean army base, with 36 people infected.
For some, vaccines have brought a sigh of relief — especially for those working on the frontlines.
Being vaccinated has allowed Colombian doctor Norberto Medina to return to his job at an intensive care unit in the capital Bogota feeling “more relaxed”.
Medina, 41, has lived all facets of the pandemic, seeing patients die on his ward, nursing others back to health — and eventually staring death in the face when he contracted the virus himself.
“The pandemic has changed me forever,” he told AFP after he returned to work, 54 days after he was diagnosed.
“It has made me more humane.”