AstraZeneca's vaccination to be halted in Europe

The World Health Organisation will convene its expert group on Tuesday to review vaccine safety
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REUTERS/DADO RUVIC  -   Vials labelled "AstraZeneca COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine"

Several European countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have decided to preventively suspend vaccination against the coronavirus with the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZenca's preparation after recalling a specific batch when cases of thrombosis were detected.

After the first symptoms and side effects, which the pharmaceutical company has always denied, several countries have decided to suspend vaccination with AstraZeneca as a precaution and until the possible side effects are investigated, they consider it necessary to check the potential link between this vaccine and the new cases of thrombosis recorded in Europe after its inoculation.

In any case, the countries that have suspended the application of the AstraZeneca vaccine have left the final decision in the hands of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which will make a concrete decision on the matter on the 18th.

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AFP/SERGEI SUPINSKY - Medical workers queue to receive a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against coronavirus disease, marketed under the name Covishield and produced in India, at a hospital in Kiev

So far, the countries that have decided to suspend vaccination with AstraZeneca's preparation are Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, while Austria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden and Luxembourg. Others have halted vaccination with two specific batches manufactured on this continent that are considered suspect.

AstraZeneca says for now that safety data from more than 17 million people who received its vaccine in the EU and the UK have been examined and that this information "does not provide any evidence of an increased risk" of thromboembolic events.

The company said that a total of 15 cases of deep vein thrombosis and 22 cases of pulmonary embolism had been reported among those vaccinated up to the 8th, "a figure that is well below what we would naturally find in a population of this size".

However, he pointed out that this interruption is temporary and that AstraZeneca has already submitted a report to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) showing that the number of cases of thrombosis caused by the biologic is infrequent.

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AFP/AFP - Map of European countries that have suspended or banned the use of certain batches of Astrazeneca's vaccine as of 16 March

AstraZeneca's formulation is the third authorised in the EU, behind BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna.

The resumption of the vaccination campaign will be possible because AstraZeneca's shortage of doses will be compensated by a 25-30% increase in Pfizer's vaccine deliveries to the EU in the first half of the year compared to what was initially planned. Especially since there are plants of the Anglo-Swedish group, located outside the EU, that could produce to fulfil these contracts with the Europeans and make up for the problems at its Belgian factory.

The EMA has so far identified around 30 cases of thrombosis following a dose of AstraZeneca's vaccine. In total, some five million doses have been administered in the EU. At the same time he pointed out that the rate of thrombosis cases among those vaccinated "is not higher than in the population as a whole", but added that a detailed analysis of what has happened is needed.

The data analysed by the WHO indicate that these cases correspond to what would occur naturally in the general population over a given period. According to WHO data, confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide have increased by 11% in the last week.

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AP/CHRISTOPHE ENA - At least a dozen countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have temporarily suspended the use of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine

The WHO experts insisted that temporarily stopping vaccination with AstraZeneca is only a preventive measure that some governments have chosen to take. They considered that this demonstrates that strict pharmacological monitoring of the vaccination is being carried out to detect any serious side effects.

The growing doubts about AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine threaten the immunisation of millions of people in Latin America, especially in countries with a small vaccine portfolio and which are totally dependent on the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker's doses.

This is especially true for those that depend on the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Covax mechanism and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), which seeks to ensure global and equitable access to anti-COVID drugs and aims to deliver at least two billion doses by the end of the year. Almost all of the 337 million doses it aims to deliver to low- and middle-income countries around the world in the first phase are from AstraZeneca.

In Central America alone, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras have already received the first shipments from AstraZeneca through Covax. In any case, many of the Latin American countries have signed contracts with the pharmaceutical company. Brazil has already confirmed the purchase of 224.4 million doses, Colombia has purchased 10 million and Mexico 79.4 million with a commitment to produce the vaccine in the country.

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AFP/AFP- How the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine uses tailored viruses to trigger the body's immune response against SARS-CoV-2

A long list that also includes Peru (14 million), Dominican Republic (10 million, plus 110,000 produced by India), Nicaragua (200,000), Ecuador (5 million), Costa Rica (1 million), Argentina (23.5 million) but from which Cuba is left out.

The latest African nations to join the list of COVAX beneficiaries were Benin, where 144,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived late on Wednesday - out of a total of 792,000 to be shipped to the country in the coming months - and Sierra Leone, which received 96,000 doses from the same pharmaceutical company on Tuesday 9 March, as part of an initial batch of 528,000.

In parallel to these efforts, other groups of African nations are also being vaccinated thanks to the solutions they have been able to acquire through bilateral agreements with pharmaceutical producers.

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AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI - The European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organisation say the available data do not suggest that the vaccine caused the clots and that people should continue to be vaccinated

Despite this progress, Africa and its 1.3 billion people lag behind globally in terms of immunisation progress: of the 55 member countries of the African Union (AU), 19 have started national immunisation campaigns.

The dependence of these countries on the WHO initiative, and not having the privilege of a wide range of doses from other companies, makes AstraZeneca a threat to the immunisation of their citizens.

This view is also supported by the WHO, which this week urged countries not to panic and again recommended that they continue to use it. "Of course we have to monitor everything that happens, but there is no reason to panic," said WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.