Pressure grows on Government to review use of AstraZeneca vaccines

Donnelly and Glynn set to consider vaccine in context of other EU countries’ restrictions

HSE vaccination centre in the Aviva Stadium: Ministers and senior officials insist  the programme is “ramping up” and  200,000 people a week will receive shots in the second half of this month. Photograph: Alan Betson

HSE vaccination centre in the Aviva Stadium: Ministers and senior officials insist the programme is “ramping up” and 200,000 people a week will receive shots in the second half of this month. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The Government is likely to come under pressure on Thursday to review the usage of the AstraZeneca vaccine after the European medicines regulator said unusual blood clots were “a very rare” side-effect of the drug and several EU countries and the UK restricted its use.

On Wednesday, the European Medicines Agency concluded that unusual blood clots were related to use of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, but the agency added that the health benefits of the protection it provides from Covid-19 outweigh the risks.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly discussed the issue at a meeting with his EU counterparts and he is expected to review the position with the deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn on Thursday morning.

The Health Products Regulatory Authority said on Wednesday night it was reviewing reports of 18 blood clots or events possibly associated with blood clots as side-effects from the AstraZeneca jab out of more than 204,000 doses given so far in the State but “none are of the nature of the very rare blood clots of concern”.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee will also meet on Thursday to consider the EMA finding. While the advice on the use of the vaccine remains unchanged, there is growing expectation that the public health officials may be swayed by any changes in guidance in other EU countries in response to the EU medicines regulator’s finding.

UK guidance

The UK abruptly changed guidance over the use of the AstraZeneca jab, recommending that people aged under 30 should be given an alternative vaccine.

The Health Service Executive is, for now, continuing with its planned rollout of AstraZeneca vaccines to people with underlying health conditions that put them at very high risk from Covid.

Any change in guidance would create further obstacles in the State’s protracted vaccine programme given that the AstraZeneca jab accounts for just over 20 per cent of the planned vaccine supplies to the State during the months of April, May and June.

Dr Mary Favier, a former president of the Irish College of General Practitioners and a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), said the EMA’s findings would inevitably raise questions about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine but for people at higher risk from Covid-19 and others looking for a return to normality the benefits of the jab would “far outweigh the risks”.

“Fundamentally, on balance, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the benefit of the AstraZeneca vaccine but, at the same time, it is going to be harder to encourage younger people who have no other risk factors and who we will want to get vaccinated in due course,” she said.

Vaccine specialist Dr Anne Moore, a senior lecturer at UCC’s school of biochemistry, said the risk of catching Covid-19 was hundreds of times more likely than suffering a blood clot after being vaccinated with AstraZeneca.

“We should figure out what is best for us and not blindly follow the UK or any other EU country. The vaccine is highly effective and the [blood clot] is extremely rare,” she said.

Supply of vaccines

The news on the AstraZeneca vaccine came on a day that the Government delivered positive news on the supply of vaccines, revealing that it expected to receive deliveries of 3.9 million doses of the four vaccines – AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and the newest one, Janssen – in the months April, May and June.

Ministers and senior officials insist that the vaccine programme is “ramping up” and will see 200,000 people a week receive shots in the second half of this month. More will be needed, however, to reach the targets of an average of a million vaccines a month in April, May and June, though Wednesday’s announcements suggest that supply of the vaccines – which constrained the programme in recent months – will no longer be an issue.

Meanwhile, there were strong indications from political sources that the Government will shortly expand the list of countries from which travellers are required to quarantine in State-designated hotels. The issue caused a row in Government last week when Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney raised objections. However Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Wednesday the “key issue in terms of mandatory hotel quarantine is to protect against variants and the Government will be deciding on that”.

Mr Martin said he is “of course” open to adding more EU countries to the list, particularly if there is an issue with variants of concern. Several EU countries are experiencing surges in infections, with rising concerns about new variants of the virus.

Mr Martin also indicated that the Government would not change its position on vaccination schedules to prioritise teachers. Teachers’ unions voted to take action “up to and including” strikes if the Government did not promise to vaccinate teachers by the end of June.

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