AstraZeneca Vaccine Suspensions Weaken Europe’s Already Faltering Rollout
AstraZeneca Vaccine Suspensions Weaken Europe’s Already Faltering Rollout
LONDON — The suspension of the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine by most governments across Europe has further set back an already fraught inoculation campaign on the continent and threatened to rattle the vaccination effort in dozens of other countries around the world.
No country in the European Union is on pace to reach its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of its population by September. Hundreds of millions of people across the continent are still constrained by some of the most severe coronavirus restrictions in the world, and millions more are facing the prospect of rules being tightened further to tackle a third wave of the coronavirus.
The head of the European Medicines Agency, speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, said that while the regulators were still studying concerns about the possibility of rare side effects, including blood clots and abnormal bleeding, there was “no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions.”
“While the investigation is ongoing, we are currently still firmly convinced that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19, with its associated risk of hospitalization, outweigh the risk of the side effects,” said Emer Cooke, the agency’s executive director.
She said that the agency would provide a more detailed assessment after an emergency session on Thursday.
The European Union’s vaccine efforts have been marked by political infighting, mixed messaging to the public, a shortage of supply and a lack of solidarity. And with many member states’ vaccination strategies heavily reliant on the vaccine made by AstraZeneca, the decision to suspend its use while the bloc’s regulatory body looks into concerns about its safety will slow things down even more.
Spain joined France, Italy, Germany and others in halting the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the hesitancy of European governments may undermine public confidence in the vaccine, which could have implications far beyond Europe.
The World Health Organization was quick to react to moves by European governments, hoping to prevent a broader panic. It said on Monday that there was no evidence to suggest that the AstraZeneca vaccine was unsafe.
Millions of people in dozens of countries have received AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine with few reports of ill effects, and its prior testing in tens of thousands of people found it to be safe. All of the governments in Europe that suspended its use said they were acting simply out of an abundance of caution while the bloc’s regulatory body reviewed the data.
The AstraZeneca vaccine, developed in partnership with Oxford University, was designed to be the workhorse of the global vaccination effort — with some two billion doses ordered for use in more than 70 countries this year.
It is being sold using a nonprofit model and is far cheaper than other vaccines. It can be stored more easily and has already started to be shipped to low- and middle-income countries that signed onto the global vaccine sharing program Covax.
But after a new raft of suspensions on Monday, the only large country in the European Union still administering the shots was Poland, which finds itself already firmly in the grip of a third wave of the pandemic that is moving swiftly across the continent.
The Czech Republic, which in recent weeks has had the highest rates of infection and death in the world, is also still using the vaccine. Several smaller countries in the bloc have also not suspended its use, creating a rather confused landscape for an exhausted public.
But without widespread distribution of the vaccine, governments are turning to the one tool they have used for the past year: lockdowns.
The rules in Europe have been far more restrictive and imposed for far longer than almost anywhere else in the world. The pain — financial, physical and psychological — is hard to measure but no one doubts it is real and getting worse.
When Italian officials announced a new national lockdown on Monday, the reaction was a mix of anger, resignation, sadness and worry.
Mauro Bolognesi, 65, smoked a cigarette in front of his vintage shop as he looked at the closed shutters around him in the popular Navigli area of Milan.
“I am not going to make it if this lasts one more year,” he said.
“It’s awful,” said Franca Gonella, 65, as she walked her dog in front of the prime minister’s palace in Rome on Monday — one of the few activities Italians are allowed outside the home. “If you are going to lock everyone up then they should be blanketing us with vaccines. The problem is that there are no vaccines.”
The decision to halt the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine will only make things worse.
While the AstraZeneca vaccine is already authorized in dozens of countries, it has not yet been approved by American regulators. The results from its clinical trial in the United States have not yet been reported, and the company has not sought emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
There is widespread concern among public health officials that the United States may yet have to endure its own new wave of infection caused by more contagious variants — especially as states move to open up completely, including eliminating even simple measures like mask wearing requirements. But vaccines are being rolled out with an urgency simply not seen in Europe.
And the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine has thrown already slow and confusing rollouts clouded by political disputes into deeper disarray and confusion.
Rossella Crea, 46, a high school teacher in Italy’s northern city of Verona, got her AstraZeneca shot on March 1. She said that after reading news of the latest suspensions, she became anxious and she was no longer sure she would get her booster dose in May.
“I feel disoriented,” she said, “I think we must get vaccinated in general but this AstraZeneca one worries me.”
In Spain, the nationwide suspension came just as some regional politicians were pressuring the central government to extend the usage of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to people over 55 years of age. Several other European countries had recently raised similar age thresholds, just before halting use of the vaccine.
So far, Spain has administered about 930,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, focusing this month on professionals like schoolteachers and police officers. Very few of them have received their second dose, which leaves a big question mark as to what happens if the suspension gets prolonged.
Spain’s health minister, Carolina Darias, urged citizens to stay calm. She said on Monday that there was only a single case of a person recently vaccinated in Spain developing any of the conditions that had led to the suspensions and there was no evidence to link their symptoms to the vaccination.
Some public health experts in Spain are questioning the suspension, given the lack of evidence that the vaccine caused severe side effects.
In a column published on Tuesday by the newspaper El Mundo, Juan Martínez Hernández, an epidemiologist, described the suspension as “a mistake.” If such a vaccination program gets halted even when no causal relationship has yet been established, he asked, “are we ready to accept the extension and perpetuation of Covid-19 in Europe and the world?”
While there was broad concern that the decision to halt the use of the vaccine could harden skeptics and embolden anti-vaxxers, there were many more just left wanting.
Jean Imbert, a 70-year-old retiree who was administered his first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine on March 7, said that he had “no particular concerns” about Monday’s announcements. A geneticist by training, Mr. Imbert said he had read several studies on AstraZeneca’s vaccine that had convinced him of its safety.
Mr. Imbert said that there was “an overreaction in many European countries,” adding that “if the ban on the vaccine lasts too long, we will have more deaths due to delayed vaccination” than because of inoculations.
Mr. Imbert said that by temporarily banning the AstraZeneca vaccine, European countries would only fall further behind the rest of the world in their vaccination campaigns.
“Our friends from Great Britain must be having a good laugh,” he said.
While Britain remains under some of the most draconian lockdown restrictions in the world — with all nonessential shops closed and even outdoor dining banned for another month — its plummeting rates of infection and death offer hope that the vaccination program is indeed the only path to freedom.
For those who are watching and waiting for their own vaccinations, there is an ominous feeling that the spring might yet be another cruel season.
Reporting was contributed by Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, Emma Bubola from Rome, Melissa Eddy from Berlin and Constant Méheut from Paris.