The latest guidance from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine, while bringing useful clarification to the issues involved, has largely left it to EU states themselves to decide what restrictions if any should be imposed on its use. The EMA said that blood clots are a rare side-effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine but that its benefits in protecting against the virus outweighed the risk and that there was no evidence to justify limiting the administration of the vaccine to specific age groups.
Nonetheless, 17 member states have done just that, mostly to restrict use of the product among younger people. The UK's regulator also recommended that healthy people under 30 should be provided with a different vaccine where possible. In Ireland, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) was due to meet on Thursday before issuing any advice to the Department of Health. The first Irish case of the very rare blood clot in a person after vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine is being investigated in a 40-year-old Dublin woman.
The fact that the EMA was in a position to issue its advice at this stage shows that systems in place to monitor real-world vaccine safety are working well. Suspected side-effects were reported rapidly, information was shared and experts came together swiftly to assess all available evidence. That should reassure the European public, as should the headline finding that AstraZeneca’s shot should continue to be administered. A continental suspension of the vaccine’s use would have thrown national vaccination plans into disarray and further damaged public confidence.
But it could also damage public confidence to have 27 member states introduce different restrictions for the same vaccine. A common approach would be preferable, in consultation with the EMA. That would send a reassuring message of unity. It would also be in keeping with the thrust of the health advice, which is that the risks of taking the vaccine are extremely small while the protection it offers are very significant indeed.