Covid-19: What has happened to the AstraZeneca vaccine in other countries?

Denmark moved first but many others have suspended the vaccine over safety concerns

Ireland temporarily suspended the use of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine last weekend, but other EU countries moved ahead of the State while others followed in pausing use of the jab.

Why have countries stopped administering the jab?

Several countries suspended use of the vaccine, developed by Oxford University and the British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, in order to examine new data after a small number of blood-clotting incidents were reported in people after receiving the jab. The European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organisation says that the available data suggests that there is no evidence that the clots have been caused by the vaccine and have encouraged the continued use of the vaccine, saying that its benefits outweighs the risks during the pandemic. Despite this, a growing number of countries have halted its use pending a EMA review.

Which country moved first?

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Denmark became the first country to suspend the vaccine a week ago - on Thursday, March 11th - as a precaution after reports of severe cases of blood clots in people who had been vaccinated with AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 jab. The Danish health authority said that it could not be concluded that there was a link between the vaccine and the blood clots. Later that day, both Iceland and Norway also suspended use of the vaccine. Thailand also stalled its rollout of the vaccine just before its prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet were due to be vaccinated.

When did Ireland react?

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn issued a statement on Sunday morning saying that the National Immunisation Advisory Committee had recommended the suspension of the vaccine as a precautionary measure after receiving reports of serious blood clotting events in adults after vaccination with the AstraZeneca jab from Norway's medicines regulator.

Norway’s health authorities reported that four people under the age of 50 who had received the vaccine had unusually low levels of blood platelets, which could lead to severe bleeding.

At home, the suspension led to the postponement of about 30,000 vaccinations of healthcare workers and high-risk people aged between 16 and 69 with serious underlying health conditions who were due to receive their jabs this week.

Dr Glynn said: “It may be nothing, we may be overreacting and I sincerely hope that in a week’s time that we will be accused of being overly cautious.”

Have other countries responded with similar suspensions?

Yes, On Monday, some of Europe’s biggest countries - Germany, Italy, France and Spain - all suspended the vaccine pending a review by the EMA. The Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia and Luxembourg have also halted its use, while the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia have delayed their rollout of the vaccine. More than a dozen countries have stopped using the vaccine. It has been authorised in more than 60 countries around the world.

But did some of these countries react differently initially?

Yes, Germany initially said it would continue with the vaccine after suspensions by Norway and Denmark. It later said that it had found seven cases of a rare type of blood clotting in the brain - cerebral venous sinus thrombosis - among 1.6 million people administered with AstraZeneca doses in the country. Three of the seven people with the condition died. Germany has found that the blood clotting found in the vaccinated people was more than would be expected statistically than normally found in the population.

France moved with its suspension after seeing Germany’s data.

What has happened in the UK where the vaccine was developed?

More than 11 million people have already received at least one dose of the vaccine in the UK and there have been no reported deaths or blood clotting events. Downing Street has said that British prime minister Boris Johnson sees both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines as "safe and effective" and would be willing to take either when he is called to get his vaccination. The UK's medicines regulator has said that it was monitoring the reports of blood clots but believes that the vaccine "remains both safe and effective" and has encouraged people to continue receiving it. Clinical trials have shown to be more than 70 per cent protective against Covid-19.

What about the US?

The vaccine has yet to be approved in the US where the results of a trial are awaited before it applies to the American regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, for approval.

What has AstraZeneca said about all this?

The pharmaceutical multinational has said that more than 17 million people have received the vaccine in the UK and the EU and fewer than 40 cases of blood clots were reported as of last week.

Hasn’t there been difficulties with AstraZeneca before?

Yes. The company’s European trials were criticised for lacking transparency, a dosing error and a lack of data around its effectiveness among older people. The company and the EU have been locked in a long-running row over the multinational’s shortfalls in vaccine delivery targets.

AstraZeneca had promised 90 doses in the first quarter, but later reduced this to 40 million and again to 30 million. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the company has "under-produced and under-delivered." Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Wednesday evening there had been "annoyance and angst" within the European Union about AstraZeneca.

When will we know more about whether the vaccine is safe to use?

The EMA’s safety committee is reviewing the latest data on the vaccine and has called an “extraordinary meeting” for Thursday where it is expected to share the conclusions of its review and share “any further actions that may need to be taken.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent