European leaders turn on each other over AstraZeneca ban

Europe’s vaccine civil war: Leaders turn on each other as Brussels calls for AstraZeneca roll-out to continue, Poland accuses bloc of ‘giving in to panic’ and Italy and France signal U-turn

  • European leaders are at loggerheads over the decision of 19 countries to halt the use of AstraZeneca jabs 
  • Brussels urged the bloc to push ahead with the jabs to protect people with a third Covid wave looming
  • Poland also vowed to continue using Astra, accusing other leaders of ‘giving in to panic’ and disinformation 
  • Meanwhile Germany’s health minister faced calls to resign over his handling of the crisis and decision to block the jabs, and Merkel’s CDU part slumped to its lowest poll rating of the entire pandemic 

An extraordinary civil war has broken out in Europe over vaccinations as leaders turn on each-other over the decision to halt the use of AstraZeneca jabs. 

Stella Kyriakides, health commissioner of the European Commission, issued a rare rebuke to EU leaders on Tuesday, urging them to keep using AstraZeneca shots to protect as many people as possible with a Covid third wave looming.

‘Every dose counts,’ she told a virtual summit, pointing to 14million vaccines that have gone un-used in Europe including 7.5million AstraZeneca jabs. 

Meanwhile Poland’s Prime Minister vowed to keep administering the shots in defiance of 19 countries which have paused their use, accusing other leaders of ‘giving in to panic’ about blood clots.

In Germany, health minister Jens Spahn is facing calls to resign over his handling of the crisis including the decision to block AstraZeneca jabs, with Wolfgang Kubicki, leader of the FDP, accusing him of undermining trust in the vaccine.

‘We should open up AstraZeneca to everyone,’ he said. ‘The vaccine is of no use if it is not vaccinated quickly enough.’

Angela Merkel’s CDU party also slumped to its lowest rating since the start of the Covid pandemic in a new poll released today, as public confidence in her management of the crisis ebbs away.

Elsewhere France’s Emmanuel Macron – also facing an election this year – and Italy’s newly-installed premier Mario Draghi signalled an imminent U-turn on AstraZeneca once the European Medicines Agency gives its final verdict on Thursday.

But the EMA has already insisted twice – once last week and once on Tuesday – that any risks from AstraZeneca’s vaccine are far outweighed by the benefits and that there is no reason to stop using it.  

European leaders have turned on one-another in the latest episode of the bloc’s shambolic jabs saga, amid fury at the decision to block the use of AstraZeneca vaccines as a third wave of infections looms 

Italy’s medicines authority yesterday admitted the decision to stop using the Oxford-AstraZeneca was ‘political’, while in Germany, Angela Merkel’s closest allies hit out against the decision to suspend its use when cases were rocketing across the country.

Berlin officials yesterday defended the move, claiming that seven cases of a rare type of blood clot had occurred in the 1.6 million people it had given the jab – a higher number than expected. The German Health Ministry argued ‘it would not be responsible to continue vaccinating without an investigation’.

But in sign of the chaos, France and Italy were last night already signalling they could make a U-turn – suggesting they could restart use of jab once EMA gives its final verdict tomorrow (Thursday).

Poland said yesterday that it would carry on using the AstraZeneca jab, accusing other states of giving in to ‘disinformation’.

The PM’s chief of staff said: ‘Most countries that have temporarily suspended (AstraZeneca) vaccinations have given in to panic caused by media-fuelled information about alleged complications.’

British regulators, politicians and scientists maintain the jab – which has already been given to 11 million Britons – is safe and that any links to blood clots are purely coincidental.

Last night, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘The Oxford/Astra-Zeneca jab is safe… that is what the British regulator says, but also the World Health Organisation and even the European regulator.

‘We know that over 10 million people have had it in this country.’

‘We keep the effects of these vaccines under review all the time and we know that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is saving lives in the UK right now. So if you get the call, get the jab.’ 

Sweden, Portugal and Lithuania became the latest EU countries to pause use of the vaccine yesterday, taking the total number who have suspended or restricted use to 19.

Downing Street suggested these countries were wrong to stop administering the Astra-Zeneca jab and that Boris Johnson would be ‘perfectly happy’ to receive it himself.

Reassurances from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and EMA have so far failed to quell the growing crisis, with both holding emergency meetings this week.

The EMA confirmed it has been investigating since the concerns were first flagged last week, with its full findings due to be published tomorrow afternoon (Thurs).

Emer Cooke, executive director of EMA, told a press briefing on Tuesday there was no current indication that the Oxford vaccine was the cause of the ‘very rare’ reported blood clots.

She said: ‘I want to stress at present there is no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions.

‘They have not come up in the clinical trials and they are not listed as known side events with this vaccine.

‘In clinical trials both vaccinated people and people who received the placebo have shown some very small number of blood clot developments.

‘The number of thromboembolic events overall in vaccinated people seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population.’ She said the EMA remains ‘firmly convinced’ that the benefits of the Astra Zeneca outweigh any risks and admitted she was worried about the effects of the suspensions on vaccine trust among citizens.

She added: ‘Thousands of people are dying across the EU every day. We have authorised for highly effective Covid vaccines that can protect against severe Covid disease. These are very rare thromboembolic events, or blood clots. We need to evaluate these very carefully.’ 

Elsewhere, Stella Kyriakides, health commissioner of the European Commission, urged countries to start protecting citizens again by giving them the jab.

Speaking following a virtual meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels, she said: ‘Even with the immense and regrettable challenges around production capacity and deliveries, there are reports of unused reservoirs of vaccines across the European Union.

‘We currently see the proportions of available vaccine doses distributed range from 50 to 100 per cent across member states.

‘Every dose counts and every dose is providing a protective shield for our health workers, our elderly, or our vulnerable groups.’ EU governments have so far used just 48 million doses out of 62.2 million delivered so far, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Almost 15 million of those doses were supplied by UK-based drugs giant AstraZeneca, with more than 7.5 million of the unused vaccines now said to be sitting unused in fridges.

Germany’s national disease centre warned that the country is now in the grips of a third wave and facing an exponential rise in cases, that could see it break previous records within weeks.

The crisis has led Angela Merkel’s closest ally, the Bavarian regional leader, Markus Söder, to break ranks, telling German television he would take the vaccine ‘immediately’.

The chancellor was also accused of having ‘no clear policy’ by her main coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), who called on Jens Spahn, the health minister, to resign.

As the row intensified, the German Health Ministry tried to justify its decision by announcing further details about the cases which had led to the decision.

It revealed there had been seven cases of cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT), a rare type of blood clot, three of which had been fatal, out of the 1.6 million people vaccinated so far.

It said the cases were in conjunction with thrombocytopenia, a condition characterised by abnormally low levels of platelets, with experts adding they would only have expected between 1 to 1.4 cases in the fortnight following vaccination.

The statement said: ‘This illness is so serious… that it would not be responsible to continue vaccinating without an investigation,’ adding that it was ‘striking that young people, too, were affected, especially women’.

Germany’s Paul Ehrlich Institute said the condition is ‘so serious that it is not justifiable to continue vaccinating without testing’.

Panic set in amid reports of blood clots after AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but data shows the same number of clots occurred after Pfizer vaccines – which Europe continues to use – and that none of the clots are actually linked to the shots

Figures from AstraZeneca and the European Medicines Agency show the number of blood clot-related conditions from 17million doses dished out in the UK and Europe up to March 13

However, German newspaper BILD appeared to hit back at the suggestion, with the headline: ‘Thrombosis risk after vaccination at 0.0004 percent while the opposition Free Democrat Party said the German government had ‘unnecessarily endangered human lives’.

The UK’s drug regulators appear to have spotted the condition five times in 11million doses – but have yet to comment on Germany’s figures.

Data from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regulator in the UK has also shown more people have reported blood clots after having Pfizer’s vaccine than the Oxford one – even though Pfizer’s jab has not been suspended anywhere.

The MHRA said that, in the UK up until February 28, it had received 30 reports of blood clots in people who had the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and 38 reports associated with Pfizer/BioNTech.

It said more than 11 million doses of AstraZeneca had been given in the UK so far.

‘Such reports are not proven side effects of the vaccine. Blood clots can occur naturally and are not uncommon,’ a statement said.

The WHO released a statement yesterday afternoon saying there had been reports of clots in “very few people”, but “there are several aspects of these cases which require careful evaluation, including the age of patients, clinical features and severity of conditions”.

It added: ‘This data is now being collected and carefully reviewed by WHO and the European Medicines Agency. At this time, we do not know whether some or all of the conditions have been caused by the vaccine or by other coincidental factors. As soon as the review is finalised, we will inform of any findings.

‘For the moment, based on the evidence reviewed to date by the EMA, the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing hospitalisation and death due to Covid-19 outweigh the risks of side effects.’ 

Earlier, the director general of Italy’s medicines authority, Nicola Magrini, told Italian daily newspaper la Repubblica that the decision by some European countries to suspend the roll-out was a ‘political one’.

Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, was facing down calls for his resignation today over his decision to block AstraZeneca jabs – while Angela Merkel (left) saw her party slump to its lowest poll rating of the crisis as people lost faith in her leadership

He said the vaccine was safe and added: ‘We got to the point of a suspension because several European countries, including Germany and France, preferred to interrupt vaccinations… to put them on hold in order to carry out checks. The choice is a political one.’ 

According to AstraZeneca, about 17 million people in the EU and the UK have received a dose of the vaccine, with fewer than 40 cases of blood clots reported.

Last night, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said the EU crisis was ‘obviously a matter for those countries’ but stressed the World Health Organization has been clear that the AZ vaccine is both safe and effective.

Asked how the Government would allay concerns at home, the spokesman said: ‘We continue to roll out both vaccines and we continue to see an incredibly high take up in terms of those who are offered the vaccine.

‘As you will have seen over recent days and weeks we continue to provide the vaccine to literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people every day and we will continue to roll the vaccine programme out.

‘You’ve heard the MHRA come out and be extremely clear that both vaccines are both safe and effective.

‘Anybody who’s invited to come forward to take a vaccine should do so.’ Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said the decision to pause rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab could be a ‘disaster’ for vaccine uptake in Europe.

Asked what he would say to those in the UK who are booked to receive the vaccine, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I really wouldn’t be worried at the present time.

‘I think it is very clear that the benefits of being vaccinated at the moment so far outweigh the possible concern over this rather rare type of blood clot.’

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