The African Union (AU) today seconded the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which on Wednesday maintained a positive opinion on the benefit of AstraZeneca's covid-19 vaccine, despite the development of very rare thromboembolisms as a side effect of the drug detected in several dozen cases.
"This week, the European Medicines Agency indicated on the issue of blood clots that these should be listed as very rare side effects of the AstraZeneza vaccine," the director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), an AU agency, John Nkengasong, said today.
"However, it is still recognised that the benefits of receiving the vaccine outweigh the risks of these rare side effects," Nkengasong stressed at a telematic press conference, where he emphasised that "the key word here is rarity".
"So, I think this vaccine is still safe. We will continue to recommend the use of the vaccine," said the Cameroonian virologist, who advocated giving "credit to what the EMA has done" with "very strong surveillance systems".
In a similar vein, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, confirmed today in another virtual press conference that her office maintains the recommendation to use the vaccine in the region.
At the same meeting, Dr Richard Mihigo, from the WHO's vaccine and immunisation development programme, also noted that no cases of blood clots have yet been detected in Africa.
Although four weeks of research failed to define specific risk factors to explain the unusual blood clots in people who received AstraZeneca's vaccine, the EMA said it does see a "strong association" of these "adverse" events and that they are a "signal that there is a probable causal relationship" between the drug and thromboembolisms.
However, EMA executive director Emer Cooke said that "the benefit of AstraZeneca's vaccine in preventing covid-19 outweighs the risk of side effects" because it has been shown to be "highly effective in preventing serious disease".
The Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company's product is the main vaccine being used in Africa, where it has arrived mainly through COVAX, a mechanism promoted by the WHO, among others, to provide equitable access to the drug for less developed countries.
However, the AU confirmed at the end of March the procurement of 220 million single-dose covid-19 vaccines from Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals, for distribution in the third quarter of 2021.
Africa could also procure a further 180 million doses of the drug in 2022, for a total of 400 million doses.
The continent, which has a population of 1.3 billion, has only administered 11 million covid-19 vaccines, the WHO said on Wednesday, warning of "inequalities" in access to the drug.
At the same press conference, Nkengasong also spoke out today on the idea of a "vaccination passport", which the UK, for example, is contemplating in order to open up the economy.
"Any imposition of a vaccination passport would create huge inequalities," said the virologist, who is more in favour of issuing "immunisation certificates" for travel.
To date, Africa has officially recorded just over 4.3 million cases of covid-19, of which about 114,600 have resulted in deaths and just over 3.8 million are recovered patients, according to the latest data released by Africa CDC.