AstraZeneca has defended its COVID-19 vaccine after the Netherlands and Ireland suspended use of the jab – joining a growing list of countries to have done so over blood clot concerns.
The Netherlands is the latest nation to make the decision, with health authorities announcing on Sunday night that 43,000 vaccination appointments would be cancelled as a result.
AstraZeneca‘s jab, developed with Oxford University, will not be used there for at least two weeks.
Hours earlier, Ireland said it would also temporarily halt use of the company’s coronavirus vaccine, citing a review from Norway’s medicines agency that showed four new cases of “serious blood clotting in adults”.
The move by Irish officials came despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) having sought to downplay concerns earlier this week, and urge countries to keep using it.
And a fresh statement from AstraZeneca said: “A careful review of all available safety data of more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and UK with COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca has shown no evidence of an increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or thrombocytopenia, in any defined age group, gender, batch or in any particular country.”
The Republic of Ireland’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, recommended the vaccine stop being used for now despite him acknowledging that “it has not been concluded that there is any link” between the jab and the clotting cases reported in Norway.
“However, acting on the precautionary principal, and pending receipt of further information, the NIAC (National Immunisation Advisory Committee) has recommended the temporary deferral of the COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca vaccination programme in Ireland,” he said.
“The NIAC is due to meet again this morning. A further statement will follow thereafter.”
Ireland had followed Denmark, Norway and Iceland in temporarily halting AstraZeneca vaccinations, but neighbour Northern Ireland will keep using it after seeking advice from the UK’s medicines regulator.
In a statement, the Northern Ireland health service said they operate under the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
The service said they had been told by the MHRA: “We are aware of the action in Ireland. We are closely reviewing reports but given the large number of doses administered, and the frequency at which blood clots can occur naturally, the evidence available does not suggest the vaccine is the cause.”
The Northern Ireland health service said: “In line with MHRA guidance, the roll-out of Northern Ireland’s vaccination programme will continue. A further expansion of this programme will be announced very shortly.”
Latest figures show that as of Thursday, the overwhelming majority of vaccines given out in Ireland thus far were produced by Pfizer.
A total of 589,512 jabs have been administered, of which 452,927 were Pfizer, and 117,507 were AstraZeneca.
Just two days ago, the WHO said the AstraZeneca vaccination was “excellent” – and “no causal relationship had been established between the shot and the health problems reported”.
The intervention came after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reported one person in Austria was diagnosed with blood clots and died 10 days after vaccination, but it stressed there is “currently no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions”.
Another person was admitted to hospital in Austria with pulmonary embolism (blockage in arteries in the lungs) after being vaccinated, while one death involving a blood clot was reported in Denmark.
A 50-year-old man is also thought to have died in Italy from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), while there has been an unconfirmed report of another death there.
Despite the concerns, the Irish authorities have been pressing the pharmaceutical firm to speed up its supplies to the Republic to aid its rollout, which – like many EU countries – has been slow compared to the UK.
Ireland’s decision a blow to a vaccine rollout already lagging behind its closest neighbour
Analysis by Stephen Murphy, Ireland correspondent
On first look, an unexpected suspension announced at 9am on a Sunday morning sounds alarming, but this could yet turn out to be just a blip in the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
More than 117,000 doses of the drug have been administered in Ireland so far, and authorities say there have been no known blood clotting issues experienced. Far more Pfizer vaccines have been given (450,000 doses), but the AstraZeneca vaccine has an important part to play in Ireland’s programme, notwithstanding the well-publicised supply issues.
The head of Ireland’s National Immunisation Advisory Committee Prof Karina Butler says today’s suspension could actually boost people’s confidence in the vaccine programme, as it shows safety comes first.
But the fear is that pulling the vaccine, even as a ‘temporary deferral’, could undermine public support for taking up the vaccination.
As one expert told Sky News today, the risk of not suspending the vaccine had to be weighed against the risk of fewer vaccinations being available, and the risk of furthering vaccine hesitancy.
Irish health authorities are stressing there’s no proven ’cause and effect’ link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots. Pending further information, they’re hopeful that the situation can be resolved within a week.
For now though, it’s a blow to Ireland’s vaccine rollout, already lagging behind its closest neighbour, the United Kingdom.