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Amid probes, more nations suspend AstraZeneca COVID vaccine

Amid probes, more nations suspend AstraZeneca COVID vaccine

The investigation into potential side effects related to the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine continued to reverberate across the globe, with several more European countries suspending its use, and others such as Australia saying they have no plans to stop immunization.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) and an expert group at the World Health Organization (WHO) are reviewing data and weighing the evidence this week on thromboembolic events in people who were vaccinated, and their conclusions are expected later this week. The speed bumps with the vaccine come amid problems with short supply and slow rollout in some countries, including in Europe, where cases in some areas are rising due to more transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants.

EMA spells out investigation process

The potential problem first came to light with a few reports of thromboembolism and other blood-related conditions in people in Austria and Norway who were vaccinated, with the initial investigation focusing mainly on two batches of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine made in Europe.

Several more countries, including Germany, France, and Italy, announced suspensions yesterday as a precaution pending investigations, followed by similar announcements today from Sweden and Luxembourg. About 15 countries in Europe have paused vaccination, according to CNN.

Elsewhere, Africa Centers for Disease Control (Africa CDC) is holding an emergency meeting today to review its guidance on the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, due to reports of suspensions across Europe, Bloomberg News reported. And Australian health officials said today that the country has no plans to pause its vaccine rollout, saying that there’s no evidence the vaccine caused blood clotting issues but that regulatory agencies would investigate the reports as a precaution, according to Reuters.

Yesterday, the WHO urged countries not to panic as groups investigate the reports, while emphasizing that so far, no data support a link between blood clotting issues and the vaccine. Also, the EMA has said its preliminary investigation found no connection and that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks and that countries should continue to use it.

The WHO’s global advisory committee on vaccine safety is discussing the issue and reviewing the data today, and the EMA’s experts are meeting today and will meet again on Mar 18 to come to some conclusions.

At a briefing today, Emer Cooke, MBA, MSc, the EMA’s executive director, said the investigation is ongoing and that officials have pulled in extra experts, including those who specialize in thromboembolic conditions. She also said the reports have generated more interest in the vaccine’s safety and that the EMA has received additional reports, including some from Germany.

Cooke said rare side effects aren’t unexpected among the millions of doses that have been administered. She said the group’s main role is to rapidly investigate the reports and to determine if the vaccine caused the events or if they are more likely a coincidence.

Cases rise in Europe

Parts of Europe are reporting accelerating COVID-19 spread, including in Germany where an expert with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) today described the country’s rise as exponential, according to Reuters. Dirk Brockmann, PhD, an epidemiologist with RKI, said Germany is in its third surge, which is driven by loosened restrictions at a time when more transmissible variants are circulating.

In Turkey, the pace of new infections has risen to its highest level of the year, coming about 2 weeks after COVID-19 measures were loosened across much of the country, according to the Washington Post.

In other global headlines:

  • Papua New Guinea’s cases are surging, with its prime minister warning that the virus could infect up to one third of the country’s population and that movement restrictions would be put in place, according to the Washington Post.
  • Brazil’s president yesterday announced a new health minister, the fourth to be named during the pandemic, Reuters reported. The new health minister is a cardiologist who replaces a general who doesn’t have a medical degree or public health experience. The move comes as Brazil’s cases are surging and hospitals across all regions are nearing full intensive care unit capacity.
  • Jamaica yesterday became the first Caribbean country to receive vaccine through the COVAX program, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said yesterday.
  • The global COVID-19 total today climbed to 120,453,308 cases, along with 2,664,973 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

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