Problems pile up on AstraZeneca as Irish, Dutch halt shots

The AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in a refrigerator at Robertson House in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, Britain, 11 January 2021. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

Ireland and the Netherlands on Sunday (14 March) became the latest countries to suspend their rollouts of the AstraZeneca vaccine over concerns about post-jab blood clots despite the firm insisting there was no risk.

In the meantime, AstraZeneca acknowledged that production problems and export restrictions would reduce planned deliveries of its vaccine to the EU.

Vaccinations are a key tool to end the worst of a pandemic that has killed more than 2.6 million people since it emerged in China in late 2019.

So far more than 350 million doses have been doled out across the world, but countries including Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Bulgaria suspended the rollout of jabs from the Anglo/Swedish pharma giant this week after reports of blood clots developing in patients who had received the shot. Thailand became the first country outside of Europe to do so on Friday.

Italy’s northern region of Piedmont on Sunday said it would stop using a batch of AstraZeneca vaccines after a teacher died following his vaccination on Saturday. Austria also stopped using a particular batch last week.

The World Health Organization, Europe’s medicines watchdog, governments and experts have stressed that no causal link has been established between the vaccine and blood clotting and insisted that the shot is safe.

An AstraZeneca spokesman said it had found no evidence of increased risk of blood clot conditions after analysing reported cases from more than 17 million doses.

“In fact, the reported numbers of these types of events for COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca are lower than the number that would have occurred naturally in the unvaccinated population,” said the spokesman.

AstraZeneca’s shot is among the cheapest available and forms a bulk of deliveries to poorer nations under the WHO-backed Covax initiative, which aims to ensure vaccines get to all parts of the globe.

‘We must have confidence’

A spokesman for Ireland’s health ministry told AFP that the rollout had been “temporarily deferred” after the country’s advisory panel recommended a suspension because of concerns raised by Norwegian officials.

The Dutch health ministry similarly said it was suspending the rollout as a precaution.

The announcement will lead to delays in rolling out shots in the Netherlands, which had pre-ordered 12 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

Health authorities had scheduled around 290,000 AstraZeneca injections in the coming two weeks.

Norwegian officials said on Saturday the country had reports of people “bleeding under the skin” and “severe cases of blood clots or brain haemorrhages in younger people” who had received the shot.

AstraZeneca became embroiled in a bitter row with European leaders earlier in the year when it announced it would not be able to supply the number of doses it had promised.

Since then, European leaders have bitterly criticised the company and cast doubt on the vaccine’s efficacy while at the same time blocking some exports of doses to destinations outside the European Union.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex, however, defended his country’s decision to carry on with the AstraZeneca jab saying on Sunday France had found no reason to suspend the rollout.

“At this stage, we must have confidence in this vaccine,” he said, highlighting instead the danger of leaving large sections of the population unprotected from Covid.

France is facing a hospital crisis with intensive care beds in the Paris region running out and patients having to be taken to other parts of the country.

‘Unacceptable delay’

AstraZeneca said on Friday it would try to deliver 30 million doses to the EU by the end of March, down from a contractual obligation of 90 million and a previous pledge made last month to deliver 40 million doses.

The European Union will be able to stick to its vaccination targets this quarter despite AstraZeneca delivery delays, EU industry commissioner Thierry Breton said on Saturday.

Breton told France’s Europe 1 radio that the delay was unacceptable, but that for now there were no plans to sue the company.

“The good news is that even though there are delays with AstraZeneca we won’t be late with our vaccination programme in the first quarter,” Breton said.

Breton said that AstraZeneca had issues with testing, which were a sign of logistics problems, and urged its board of directors to take action.

He also criticized its French-born chief executive Pascal Soriot for remaining in Australia despite the problems, which he said meant he was able to visit the companies’ plants when Soriot could not.

“I won’t say that I know their factories better than them, but I’m on site,” Breton said.

AstraZeneca’s new lower supply target hinges on the bloc’s drug regulator approving supplies from a factory in the Netherlands, an internal document showed, Reuters reported on Saturday.

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