Germany, France, and Italy said on Monday they would suspend AstraZeneca COVID-19 shots after several countries reported possible serious side-effects, but the World Health Organization (WHO) said there was no proven link and people should not panic.
Still, the decision by the European Union’s three biggest countries to put inoculations with the AstraZeneca shot on hold threw the already struggling vaccination campaign in the 27-nation EU into disarray.
Denmark and Norway stopped giving the shot last week after reporting isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots, and a low platelet count. Iceland and Bulgaria followed suit and Ireland and the Netherlands announced suspensions on Sunday.
Spain will stop using the vaccine for at least 15 days, Cadena Ser radio reported, citing unnamed sources.
The top WHO scientist reiterated on Monday that there have been no documented deaths linked to COVID-19 vaccines.
“We do not want people to panic,” Soumya Swaminathan said on a virtual media briefing, adding there has been no association, so far, pinpointed between so-called “thromboembolic events” reported in some countries and COVID-19 shots.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said an advisory committee meeting on AstraZeneca would be held on Tuesday. EU medicines regulator EMA will also convene this week to assess the information gathered into whether the AstraZeneca shot contributed to thromboembolic events in those inoculated.
The moves by some of Europe’s largest and most populous countries will deepen concerns about the slow rollout of vaccines in the region, which has been plagued by shortages due to problems producing vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s.
Germany warned last week it was facing the third wave of infections, Italy is intensifying lockdowns, and hospitals in the Paris region are close to being overloaded.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that although the risk of blood clots was low, it could not be ruled out.
“This is a professional decision, not a political one,” Spahn said, adding he was following a recommendation of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s vaccine regulator.
France said it was suspending the vaccine’s use pending an assessment by EMA.
“The decision is taken, in conformity also with our European policy, is to suspend, out of precaution, vaccination with the AZ shot, hoping that we can resume quickly if the EMA’s guidance allows,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.
Italy said its halt was a “precautionary and temporary measure” pending EMA’s ruling.
“The EMA will meet soon to clarify any doubts so that the AstraZeneca vaccine can be resumed safely in the vaccination campaign as soon as possible,” said Gianni Rezza, Director General of Prevention at Italy’s Ministry of Health.
Austria and Spain have stopped using particular batches and prosecutors in the northern Italian region of Piedmont earlier seized 393,600 doses following the death of a man hours after he was vaccinated. It was the second region to do so after Sicily, where two people had died shortly after having their shots.
The WHO appealed to countries not to suspend vaccinations against a disease that has caused more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide. WHO Director-General Tedros said systems were in place to protect public health.
“This does not necessarily mean these events are linked to COVID-19 vaccination, but it’s routine practice to investigate them, and it shows that the surveillance system works and that effective controls are in place,” he told the media briefing.
The United Kingdom said it had no concerns, while Poland said it thought the benefits outweighed any risks.
The EMA has said that as of March 10, a total of 30 cases of blood clotting had been reported among close to 5 million people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot in the European Economic Area, which links 30 European countries.