The head of the Oxford University vaccine group has assured people the AstraZeneca vaccine does not cause blood clots as a growing number of countries suspend use of the jab.
Professor Andrew Pollard, whose team developed the vaccine with AstraZeneca, said it was right that regulators investigate reports of blood clots but “very reassuring” data from millions of people showed there is no link.
Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said there was no evidence linking the jab to an increased risk of blood clots.
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But several nations have suspended its use, with Indonesia becoming the latest after its health minister announced on Monday that it will delay administering the AstraZeneca vaccine as it awaits a review from the WHO.
The Netherlands and Ireland suspended its use on Sunday, with Irish officials citing a review from Norway’s medicines agency that showed four new cases of “serious blood clotting in adults”.
Prof Pollard said “safety is clearly absolutely paramount” but about 3,000 cases of blood clots occur every month in the UK from other causes.
“So, when you then put a vaccination campaign on top of that, clearly those blood clots still happen and you’ve got to then try and separate out whether, when they occur, they are at all related to the vaccine or not,” he told the BBC.
After more than 11 million doses being administered in the UK, Prof Pollard said the MHRA stated “very clearly that they’re not seeing any increase in the number of cases of blood clots” over what they would normally see.
“I think at this moment we’ve got the most data from the UK, which looks very reassuring, but of course it’s absolutely right that there’s careful monitoring of safety and this gets looked into,” he said.
Prof Pollard also pointed to the “huge risks” to those who are not vaccinated, saying there could be “tens of thousands of more deaths” this year if the UK comes out of lockdown without a vaccine and several European countries are seeing an increase in cases.
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), also tried to reassure the public by saying the data they see regularly shows there is no link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots, as he urged people to attend their vaccine appointments.
AstraZeneca released a statement on the issue, saying: “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.”
And Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the MHRA would make the decision to suspend the use of a vaccine but it has confirmed there is “no current evidence of an increase in blood clots being caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine”.
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 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 said.
Ireland 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.
The Northern Ireland health service said: “In line with MHRA guidance, the rollout of Northern Ireland’s vaccination programme will continue. A further expansion of this programme will be announced very shortly.”
On Friday, 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.
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