Germany's Covid-19 vaccination timetable was thrown into disarray yet again after its vaccine commission recommended a temporary halt on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in people below 60 years of age.
The announcement on Tuesday afternoon followed a similar decision by Canada to suspend the use of the vaccine in adults younger than 55.
Chancellor Angela Merkel held an emergency meeting with state leaders on Tuesday evening to discuss the consequences of the ban. Germany’s health authorities have promised a decision by the end of April about how to proceed with people who are awaiting their second AstraZeneca jab.
“With AstraZeneca it seems some new problem or other should be expected daily and, to be honest, you sense that in the broader public perception as well,” said Mr Markus Söder, state premier of Bavaria, ahead of the meeting.
On Tuesday morning hospitals in four German states, including Berlin’s Charité clinic, suspended use of the vaccine on staff members under 60, in particular women, after registering 31 cases of a rare blood clot in the brain among those who had received an AstraZeneca jab.
Charité epidemiologist Tobias Kurth told the Deutsche Welle news station the side effects observed in Berlin were "very, very rare, but it is there . . . more likely than we would normally observe".
He added that public trust in the British-Swedish vaccine was likely to be affected negatively after this second halt in its use. A survey last week suggested that nearly a quarter of Germans would be wary of accepting the AstraZeneca jab.
Among 31 German cases of blood clots which led to its suspension were some 19 cases of thrombocytopenia, where a lower-than-normal level of blood platelets lead to symptoms including excessive nose bleeds. All but two cases involved women between 20 and 63. The two men affected were 36 and 57 years old.
Earlier this month many EU countries suspended the use of the vaccine in elderly people but resumed after further clarification by the EU regulator.
In Europe, Denmark and Norway have yet to return to using the vaccine, with Copenhagen extending its break for three weeks to allow further investigation.
The Danish Medicines Agency said last Thursday it “can’t be ruled out that there is a connection between the vaccine and the very rare blood clot cases”.
Denmark suspended use of the vaccine on March 11th after report that a 60-year-old woman died with blood clots in several parts of her body a week after she received the vaccine.
Canadian authorities said its decision was a precaution, given the rate of adverse reactions to the vaccine has yet to be confirmed.
Its central health authority said it would not significantly delay the Canadian vaccination programme, given only a small percentage of AstraZeneca vaccines were in use.
Meanwhile, BioNTech and Pfizer have raised this year’s production target for their Covid-19 vaccine to as many as 2.5 billion doses, with the German biotech’s chief executive predicting a version of the shot that can be stored in refrigerators will be ready within months.
The new target represents an increase of about a quarter from the company’s earlier estimate.
BioNTech said it expects €9.8 billion in revenue from the supply contracts signed already, which amount to 1.4 billion doses. Revenue expectations include milestone payments from BioNTech’s partners and will rise as more orders are signed, the company said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We are seeing an increased demand,” chief executive Ugur Sahin said.
“At the moment we have prepared ourselves to produce 2.5 billion doses, but in principle there is room for further increase.”
The vaccine, the first approved in the US and EU, has catapulted BioNTech into the front ranks of European biotech companies.
– Additional reporting Bloomberg