The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged countries to continue administering the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine as several European countries, including Germany, France, and Italy suspend its use.
Since last week, more than 10 European countries have halted the use of the jab over reports that vaccinated people have developed serious blood clotting issues.
WHO said its current recommendation is that the benefits of using the AstraZeneca vaccines to fight COVID-19 — which has killed more than 2.6 million people worldwide — far outweigh the risks.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's chief scientist, noted that 300 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been administered around the world, and there is no documented death linked to any one of them.
She said the rates at which blood clots have occurred in people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine “are in fact less than what you would expect in the general population.”
"It's very unfortunate that these worrying messages are being put out by governments around Europe when what they need to be doing is immunising their populations as fast as possible," said Professor Adam Finn of Bristol University and chair of WHO Europe's Vaccines and immunisation advisory committee.
He told Euronews that with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines, "we have reports of people with thrombosis and blood clots that are well below the levels that we normally expect to see when there's no vaccination programme going on... Of course people are having blood clots. People have blood clots all the time."
WHO's vaccine safety experts are set to meet on Tuesday to discuss the jab.
Europe's medicines regulator had previously issued a similar message to the WHO, saying on Monday that it believes the benefits of vaccinations with AstraZeneca "outweigh the risk of side effects".
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said in a statement on Monday afternoon that it has been in contact with AstraZeneca, experts in blood disorders and other health authorities — including in the UK where 11 million people have received a dose of the jab — to carry out a "rigorous analysis of all the data related to thromboembolic events" in the coming days.
It stated that the number of such events in vaccinated people "seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population".
"While its investigation is ongoing, EMA currently remains of the view that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks of side effects," it added.
The EMA's safety committee is to issue further information on Tuesday while and an extraordinary meeting is to be held on Thursday to "conclude on the information gathered and any further actions that may need to be taken".
Germany, France, Italy latest to suspend AstraZeneca
The EMA and WHO's announcement comes just hours after Germany, France, and Italy joined a growing list of European countries that have temporarily suspended the use of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
Spain and Luxembourg, Portugal and Slovenia took similar measures later on Monday.
Germany's health ministry said it was a precautionary step based on a recommendation from the national medicines regulator, the Paul Ehrlich Institute.
"Following reports of cerebral vein thrombosis in connection with the vaccination in Germany and Europe, the Paul Ehrlich Institute considers further investigations to be necessary," the health ministry said on Twitter.
"The European Medicines Agency (EMA) will decide whether and how the new findings will affect the approval of the vaccine," it added.
Germany is the EU country that has so far administered the most doses of COVID-19 vaccines to its population. As of March 14, more than 6.5 million had received at least one dose of a vaccine and 2.8 million had been fully vaccinated, according to the Robert Koch Institute.
The country has so far used just under half of the 12.5 million doses it has received, of which just over 3 million are from AstraZeneca.
Germany's announcement was quickly followed by similar ones issued from Paris and Rome.
French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine was suspended until the EMA issues its recommendation on Tuesday afternoon
He said he hopes AstraZeneca vaccinations in the country can "soon" resume.
Italy's medicines regulator, AIFA, also said the suspension was a "precautionary and temporary measure" pending the EMA's recommendation.
Ireland and Netherlands also suspend the use of AstraZeneca's jab
Over the weekend Ireland and the Netherlands both suspended the use of the AstraZeneca jab saying the measure was a precaution and would be in place for two weeks.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said there was no link between the jab and an increased risk of developing a clot, adding countries should not stop the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine.
Last Wednesday the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said there is currently no evidence to link the vaccine to illnesses developed by two people in Austria who had been inoculated.
"It has not been concluded that there is a link between the COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca and these cases" of blood clotting, Dr Ronan Glynn, Ireland's Deputy Chief Medical Officer said in a statement.
"However, acting on the precautionary principle, 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 added.
The health ministry in the Netherlands said the move followed six new reports in Denmark and Norway of blood clotting and lowered levels of blood platelets in people aged under 50.
The Dutch medicines authority also stressed that no link has been proven between the cases and the vaccine.
The health ministry added that no cases had been reported in the Netherlands.
What does AstraZeneca say?
A review of the safety data from over 17 million people vaccinated with the jab in the UK and EU has not shown any evidence of an increased risk of blood clots, AstraZeneca Plc said on Sunday.
"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 vaccine producer said.
It comes a day after the pharmaceutical company announced further cuts to deliveries of its COVID-19 vaccine to the European Union, citing export restrictions for the move.
"AstraZeneca regrets to announce a reduction in deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccine to the European Union despite working tirelessly to accelerate supply," AFP news agency cited a spokesman as saying.
Faced with production difficulties, the group had decided to use its production sites outside the EU to make deliveries for the bloc, but "unfortunately, export restrictions will reduce deliveries in the first quarter" and "likely" in the second, he added.
The company aims to deliver 100 million doses in the first half of the year — 30 million in the first quarter and 70 million in the second.
The European Commission, which negotiated vaccine contracts on behalf of its 27 member states, has been heavily criticised for slow deliveries in Europe.
It aims to vaccinate 70% of citizens by the end of the summer.
AstraZeneca announced at the end of January that it would only be able to deliver 40 million doses to the EU27 in the first quarter of the year out of the 120 million it had initially promised, due to manufacturing difficulties at a Belgian plant.
Austrian health authorities had suspended the use of a batch of AstraZeneca vaccine last Sunday after a 49-year old woman died as a result of multiple thromboses — formation of blood clots within blood vessels — 10 days after being administered the jab. A 35-year-old was also hospitalised for a pulmonary embolism after receiving a vaccine from the same batch.
Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia also suspended the use of the batch.
Denmark and Norway then announced they were suspending the use of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine amid reports of blood clotting in some people who received the jab.
Health authorities said it was a step taken as a "precaution" with no direct link yet between the clots and the jab.
But it's yet more negative publicity for AstraZeneca, the Swedish-British multinational pharmaceutical company, already under the spotlight over vaccine production delays and the efficacy of its jab, which is produced with the University of Oxford.