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How have different European countries reacted to the AstraZeneca vaccine doubts?

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Vials of AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 during a vaccination campaign at WiZink indoor arena in Madrid, Spain. April 9, 2021.
Vials of AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 during a vaccination campaign at WiZink indoor arena in Madrid, Spain. April 9, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Manu Fernande
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The reactions of governments and citizens in countries across Europe to extremely rare blood clotting events related to the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine have varied greatly.

Denmark last week became the first country on the continent to abandon AstraZeneca's COVID vaccine.

Norway's health institute then recommended Oslo should follow Copenhagen's lead and stop using the jab.

Meanwhile, the UK, which has relied on the jab to carry out its vaccination programme so far, pressed on with its use, despite its health regulator confirming in early April that 19 of those inoculated had died from the rare blood clots.

Many countries chose to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca jab back in March, despite the European Medicine Agency (EMA) and World Health Organisation (WHO) backing it, saying its benefits in fighting COVID — which has killed more than 3 million people worldwide — far outweigh the risks.

In its assessment of the clots, the EMA did not identify a definite cause for these very rare events but said they have a possible link to the vaccine and requested they be listed as an extremely rare potential side effect.

The majority of them have since resumed use of the vaccine, in some cases limiting them to certain age groups. But the reports appear to have left their mark in some populations with citizens choosing not to get the shot.

Before the AstraZeneca jabs were suspended over blood clot concerns, all European countries studied in a YouGov poll, except for France, saw more people say they considered vaccine to be safe than unsafe.

But that was no longer the case in March with France, Germany, Spain and Italy all showing participants were more likely to see the vaccine as unsafe than safe.

Here's a breakdown of how different governments and citizens have reacted.

Scandinavian countries

Linda Bauld, a professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, says the epidemiological situation of the two Scandinavian countries that have halted the use of the jabs, Denmark and Norway, is not negligible in them being able to hit pause on administering it.

"They are still in a pretty good position in terms of the pandemic, so they are easing restrictions," she said. "They don't have this big third wave (in the last few months), but other parts of Europe have."

These countries were also among the first to raise the alarm about the potential link between the rare symptoms and the AstraZeneca vaccines.

Scientists in Norway were the first to say there was a link between the rare cases and the jab, with three fatal cases there.

In Denmark, two recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine have suffered severe blood clots, one of which was fatal.

While Sweden is an outlier from its neighbours in terms of both not halting the use of the jabs and experiencing a recent surge in reported cases of the virus — on April 18 it saw 604 cases per million people, whereas Norway logged 102 and Denmark 119 — YouGov found that the AstraZeneca vaccine was still seen as safe by more people than not (43% versus 34%).

The Danes are tied with 42% viewing the shot as safe and the same amount seeing it as unsafe.

In both cases, the AstraZeneca jab is seen as safe by far fewer people than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

UK

The UK's medicines regulator has urged people to continue taking the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, with the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) saying there was a possible link to the rare blood clots.

The UK has since given people under the age of 30 the choice of a different jab.

Early blood clots reports in European countries appeared to have little impact on people's attitudes to the shots in the UK, with the majority surveyed in late March by YouGov saying they considered the vaccine safe (77%), which was down just 4% from February, and still on a par with Pfizer’s 79% safety rating.

Bauld said this can be attributed in part to vaccine nationalism as "people are very proud of it and see it as the British vaccine".

She went on to say that the media coverage in the UK here was "really very balanced, unusually balanced, around that issue" that served to put things into perspective for the public.

France, Spain, Italy and Germany

Bauld identified France and Germany as two countries where the governments are "very anxious still about their vaccine rollout", adding Italy was also "to a lesser extent".

France, Spain, Italy and Germany have all restricted the use of AstraZeneca to older age groups.

In terms of public perception, France already showed high levels of vaccine scepticism compared to its `European neighbours and "a story like this makes it drop even more and undermines public confidence", she said.

In February 43% of respondents said they considered the AstraZeneca vaccine unsafe than the 33% that said safe and these figures worsened to 61% unsafe and 23% safe in late March.

"Remember, politicians mirror back what's happening in the population," Bauld said.

"Public confidence is politicians' confidence because politicians respond to what the public wants and what the public's priorities are because they are elected officials."

In Italy and Spain, most people had previously felt that the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe (54% and 59% respectively) but since the reports, those numbers have fallen to 36% and 38%.

A spokesperson for Italy's vaccine ministry said it's almost impossible to gather data on a national level in the country on how many people turn down a vaccine for a specific reason, therefore it is difficult to pinpoint if people were declining to have the jab.

But in the Calabria region in southwest Italy, for example, national media reported "many renunciations" of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with only 36% of the vaccine doses being used.

What needs to change for more Europeans to trust the vaccine?

"If the situation deteriorates or doesn't improve quickly enough and people are really fed up with non-pharmaceutical interventions - lockdowns and similar restrictions - you might see more people coming forward, even if they perceive a risk," said Bauld.

The other thing she says could change public opinion is authoritative agencies and voices communicating the message that the AstraZeneca vaccine is "still largely safe and effective" and if governments and other agencies can invest in those campaigns.

Every weekday at 1900 CEST, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.