Europe’s suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine will erode public confidence in the jab and lead to more ‘avoidable’ coronavirus deaths, experts warned today.
UK scientists claimed the decision to hold back the British-made jab on the continent due to an extremely rare risk of blood clots in young women would deprive vulnerable people of life-saving protection against the virus.
Dr Peter English, a former British Medical Association chief, said there was ‘no evidence’ vaccination was behind the clotting, adding: ‘Any decision to withhold the vaccine will directly cause excess, avoidable Covid-19 deaths.’
Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick today pleaded with Britons to keep coming for the vaccine amid fears that suspensions on the continent will fuel vaccine hesitancy at home.
The EU is currently battling a third Covid wave which has sent several countries back into national lockdowns and is struggling to get its vaccination programme up to speed.
Yet several member states have paused their rollouts of the AstraZeneca vaccine after a tiny number of inoculated people, predominantly women under 55, suffered deadly brain clots.
Germany last night became the latest nation to halt the jab in people under the age of 60 after the rare condition was spotted in 31 out of 2.7million vaccinated people. France and Norway are not allowing people younger than 55 to get the vaccine and Spain has banned its use in under-65s.
AstraZeneca still maintains the clots are not occurring any more frequently than they would in the general population, a claim which has been echoed repeatedly by medical regulators in the UK and EU, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO).
Europe’s suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine will erode public confidence in the jab and lead to more coronavirus deaths, experts warned today
This chart shows how Britain is still racing ahead of the EU in vaccinating its population against Covid-19, more than three months after the continent started its jab programme
Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick today pleaded with Britons to keep coming for the vaccine amid fears that suspensions on the continent will fuel vaccine hesitancy at home
Dr English, former chair of the BMA’s Public Health Medicine Committee, added: ‘There is no evidence that these cases are caused by vaccination, rather than simply associated with it, in people who would have had such conditions anyway.
‘Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, with case numbers rising alarmingly, any risk from vaccination has to be set against the risk of disease.
WHAT NEW EVIDENCE PROMPTED GERMANY’S U-TURN ON ASTRAZENECA’S JAB?
German health chiefs based their vaccine ban on 31 reports of a rare type of brain blood clot called cerebral sinus vein thrombosis (CSVT).
Twenty-nine of the cases have been in women and two in men, all of them under the age of 65.
These clots are the same as the handful of cases that caused widespread European suspensions of the jab earlier this month and had a link to the vaccine ruled out by European regulators.
The Germans are not known to have any more evidence to suggest that the vaccine might be causing the clots, but appear to have been spooked by the cases appearing.
Cerebral sinus vein thrombosis (CSVT) is an extremely rare type of blood clot in the brain.
It occurs when the vein that drains blood from the brain is blocked by a blood clot, resulting in potentially deadly bleeding or a stroke.
Symptoms can quickly deteriorate from a headache, blurred vision and faintness to complete loss of control over movement and seizures.
John Hopkins University estimates it affects five in a million people in the US every year, which would suggest 330 patients in Britain suffer from the condition annually.
According to the university, it can affect patients with low blood pressure, cancer, vascular diseases and those prone to blood clotting. Head injuries can also trigger the condition.
Britain’s regulator said CSVT is so rare they aren’t even sure how common it is in the general population.
‘A decision may be thought of as “precautionary”; but if people are not vaccinated, because use of the vaccine is suspended, or because of a drop in confidence in the vaccine caused by the decision, some of them will get ill from Covid-19; and some of them will die. Any decision to withhold the vaccine will directly cause excess, avoidable Covid-19 deaths.’
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick said today he was ‘100 per cent confident’ in the AZ jab, adding that ‘study after study’ had shown it is safe and is saving thousands of lives.
He told Sky News: ‘People should continue to go forward, get the vaccine, I certainly will when my time comes, it is a safe vaccine and the UK’s vaccine rollout is saving people’s lives right across the country every day.’
His plea comes after Germany announced last night it was pausing its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 60 because of a risk of rare blood clots.
German health minister Jens Spahn and state officials agreed unanimously to only give the vaccine to people aged 60 or older, unless they belonged to a high-risk category for serious illness from Covid and had agreed with their doctor to take the vaccine.
Earlier in the week Canada also halted its use in people under the age of 55 over the same clotting fears.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) both concluded that the benefits of the vaccine far outweighed the risks.
A review by Germany’s medical regulator found a total of 31 unusual blood clots, including nine deaths, were reported by March 29 out of some 2.7 million doses of AstraZeneca administered in Germany.
Twenty-nine of the cases were in women aged 20 to 63 and two in men aged 39 and 56.
In a statement, AstraZeneca said that tens of millions of people worldwide have received its vaccines and noted the European Medicines Agency’s conclusion that the benefits of the shot outweigh the risks.
The company said it would continue to work with German authorities to address any questions they might have, while also analysing its own records to understand whether the rare blood clots reported occur more commonly ‘than would be expected naturally in a population of millions of people.’
Scientists insist the risk of blood clots is no higher than in the general population but Canada has also pressed ahead with a surprise ban on giving it to under-55s.
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, said: ‘There is no evidence that there is a problem but even if there was then you’re reducing what, at worst, is a tiny risk and imposing a bigger one by not giving people the protection of a vaccine.’
Regulatory reports show that blood clot diagnoses are about equally likely after either the two jabs being used in the UK – slightly higher for Pfizer – and scientists insist the risk is no higher than a random person in the population could expect, meaning the vaccine remains safe. Rates of death soon after vaccination appear higher for AstraZeneca’s vaccine but this is likely because it is used in care homes and the people receiving it are naturally more likely to die of any reason
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
RESEARCHERS CLAIM IMMUNE SYSTEM REACTION TRIGGERS CLOTS
Research teams in Germany and Norway claim the blood clotting issue may be caused by the jab, in very rare cases, causing the body to attack its own blood platelets.
Platelets are tiny chunks of cells that the body uses to build blood clots when someone is injured, to stop them losing too much blood. But they are also components of unwanted clots.
Experts from Oslo and Greifswald University believe the jab could cause the body to produce antibodies –normally used to fight off viruses – which mistake platelets in the blood for foreign invaders and attack them.
To compensate, the body then overproduces platelets, causing the blood to thicken and raising the risk of clotting.
They admitted they ‘don’t know why this is happening’.
But the researchers say the phenomenon is similar to one that can occur in heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT), when sufferers take a drug called heparin.
Experts say the condition has not been proven to be caused by the jab and may simply be showing up just because millions of people are being vaccinated and reporting their health conditions.
They added that, if spotted early, it could be diagnosed with a simple blood test and quickly treated with blood-thinners.
They stressed that even if the clots do turn out to be caused by the vaccine they are still extremely rare.
He added that people who were more worried about the minute possibility of a blood clot than they were of Covid-19 ‘have their priorities all wrong’.
The 31 blood clots announced by German officials were its justification for the new vaccine ban.
Most of them have been in younger women but the AstraZeneca vaccinations have been stopped for both men and women. People can still get the Pfizer and Moderna jabs that are being used on the continent.
The 31 clots are the condition that first worried regulators, known as cerebral sinus venous thrombosis (CSVT).
CSVT is a rare clot in a vein draining blood from the brain that, left untreated, can cause a life-threatening brain haemorrhage or stroke.
It was this condition that panicked European drug regulators earlier in March but the European Medicines Agency found no proof the jab was causing it. Scientists and politicians slammed Germany’s move as a backwards step going over old ground.
Dr Clarke told MailOnline: ‘Whenever you do these things you need to have a reason to do them. It’s all a balance of risk.
‘There is no evidence that there is a problem but, even if there was, then you’re reducing what, at worst, is a tiny risk and imposing a bigger one by not giving people the protection of a vaccine.
‘People still get on airplanes and we know that there is a real risk of blood clotting if you’re sat on a plane for hours, but people still do it because they want to go on holiday.
‘So if people are more concerned about blood clots than they are Covid, I’d say they have their priorities all wrong.
‘You have to wonder what the thinking is. Are they being entirely up front? Because it just doesn’t make sense as it is presented. Maybe they know something they’re not letting on.’
Berlin’s health minister, Dilek Kalayci, said ‘everyone who has already received a first jab of AstraZeneca has very good protection’ but that there were new worries about possible side effects.
As a result, all upcoming appointments for the vaccine would be cancelled in Berlin for the coming days.
MPs in the UK said the move was ‘ludicrous’ and a repeat of what happened earlier in the month, which later turned out to be baseless.
Senior Tory backbencher Peter Bone said the decision to ban the drug ‘reeks of total confusion within the European Union’.
‘One thing is for sure, while the majority of our adult population has had its first jabs only a fraction in Europe have,’ he said.
‘None of it makes any logical sense, they seem to be in total confusion. The medical advice is that it does a great job.’
He added: ‘My constituents are very happy to have it and if the Germans don’t want it, send it over to us, we will use it, no problem.’
Another Tory MP said: ‘This is ludicrous. The WHO has said it is perfectly safe. The EMA has said it is safe. Our regulator has said it is safe.
‘It does look very much like a vendetta that the EU is maintaining both against AstraZeneca, because they are adhering to their contract, and the UK, out of spite.’