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There has been chaos and confusion in Germany and Italy after their decisions to suspend use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, with vaccination centres closing their doors and appointments being abruptly cancelled.
The countries are two of the biggest on a growing list of European nations that have in recent days ordered a pause in the distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The move came after seven reported cases of blood clots including deep vein thrombosis in people who had recently received the jab, three of which were fatal. No details have been released about those affected.
Lithuania, Luxemburg, Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria, Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands, France and Sweden are among other countries to have taken similar steps.
Critics in Germany warned that the pause in the rollout of the vaccine could do lasting damage to the country’s already sluggish innoculation campaign.
Vaccination centres across the country were forced to close their doors following the announcement by health minister, Jens Spahn, on Monday, after the federal medical regulatory body, the Paul Ehrlich Institute (PEI) recommended a suspension over reported cases of blood clots in recipients.
The move left many people with appointments stranded and some who had just been administered with the jab, reeling with shock. It also intensified a debate about the safety of the Oxford vaccine, which had already been viewed with mistrust after authorities decided weeks ago it could not be given to the over-65s, a move later reversed.
Approximately 1.6 million Germans have been given the AstraZeneca jab, about 17% of the total number of Covid-19 vaccines to have been administered in the country so far. With cases of the virus in Germany on the rise, and the faster spreading B117 (also known as the British or Kent) variant now making up around 60% of cases, there has been pressure to up the speed of the vaccine campaign. So far 3.5% have received a full vaccination.
In the capital Berlin, vaccination centres at the former airports Tegel and Tempelhof closed their doors and those queuing were sent home after doctors were told to stop administering the jab immediately on Monday afternoon. In the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Hamburg, all appointments for those who should have been receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine had to be cancelled. People expecting to receive second doses have been advised to wait, while anyone who has received the jab has been instructed to seek medical help in case of ongoing side-effects, including headaches or blood spots (bleeding under the skin).
The education minister, Anja Karliczek, said the move had thrown into chaos the plan to vaccinate teachers and carers, which is seen as key to allowing kindergartens and schools – which began reopening last Monday – in particular, to stay open. The expectation that GPs would be able to start administering the vaccine in their practices from next month, seen as vital to speeding up the programme, is now also in doubt.
The government said a vaccine summit, due to take place on Wednesday would first await a decision by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Thursday, before it convened.
Resulting vaccine shortages make more likely the prospect that the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, whose makers have struck deals for it to be produced in Italy, Germany, France and Spain, will become a far more prominent part of the country’s programme than previously thought, experts said. But that vaccine is still weeks if not months away from approval by EMA.
Klaus Cichutek, the head of the PEI, defended his institute’s decision to pause distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine. “I believe the citizens of this country will want to be able to rely on the fact that the vaccines which we offer, are safe and effective,” he said, saying the institute had acted quickly on the new data having previously said it had no evidence that it posed a risk of thrombosis.
But Karl Lauterbach, a qualified doctor and a health spokesman for the Social Democrats, called the vaccine pause a “mistake” that would threaten more lives than it might save. “We know that these complications are very serious, but we also know that they are extremely seldom and this needs to be weighed up. The damage that is done to the reputation of this vaccine will be irreparable … we are in the middle of a third wave of this pandemic, so to pause this vaccine will have serious consequences and it will be extremely hard to restore faith in it,” he said.
Some doctors warned that the psychosomatic effect on those who had already had the vaccine or were expecting to have it, could be considerable.
Similarly, in Italy there was also anger and confusion after thousands of appointments for the AstraZeneca jab were abruptly cancelled, further hampering the country’s vaccination programme amid the pandemic’s third wave.
The Italian medicines agency, Aifa, suspended the vaccine on Monday pending the ruling from the EMA on Thursday.
“I am perplexed and embittered,” Alessio D’Amato, the health councillor for the Lazio region, told Corriere della Sera, adding that he couldn’t understand on what grounds Aifa arrived at its decision. “The situation is dramatic … I’m concerned about the climate of mistrust and doubt, the suspicion and fear that will be generated in people regarding a vaccine on which Italy has focused a lot.”
Over a million people across the country have received the first AstraZeneca dose. There was chaos at various vaccine hubs after people found out about the suspension as they waited in line. “My worry is precious time being wasted,” Davide Rebegiani, a teacher who was waiting to receive the vaccine at a centre near Rome’s Fiumicino airport, told La Stampa. At the same time, many people had cancelled appointments in recent days over safety concerns.
Italy registered 15,267 coronavirus infections on Monday and 354 deaths. Aifa’s chief, Nicola Magrini, told La Repubblica that its decision was a “political one”, while adding that the vaccine was “safe” and the benefit-to-risk ratio “widely positive”. He said eight people had died and four more suffered severe side-effects after receiving the vaccine in Italy.
The health minister, Roberto Speranza, said he hoped the EMA would give the green light for use of the vaccine to resume on Thursday.
Reaction in France to the government’s decision to suspend the administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine, was more muted. Alain Fischer, the head of the French vaccination programme, said it was “reasonable” for national health agencies to be prudent faced with incidents that he described as “significant more by their atypical nature than by their number”.
Le Monde said in an editorial that the success of a vaccination campaign was “as much about the effectiveness of the vaccine as about the confidence it inspires” and the second condition “has just been seriously shaken” in the case of the AstraZeneca jab.
At this stage “the causal link between the formation of blood clots in a few patients which can lead to serious complications and vaccination is only chronological,” the paper said, but the few cases must be properly investigated.
Source: The Guardian
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