Vaccination programmes are facing increasing delays because of concerns over AstraZeneca’s very rare blood clotting incidents.
Australia and Greece are the latest governments deciding to offer young people alternatives to AstraZeneca’s vaccine. This will delay inoculation campaigns by around a month in Australia, France and Britain. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said most countries lacked vaccines to cover health workers and others at high risk from exposure to the virus.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said high income countries had on average vaccinated one in four people whilst low income countries the figure was one in over 500.
“There remains a shocking imbalance in the distribution of vaccines,” he told a press briefing on Friday.
The WHO and GAVI vaccine alliance’s COVAX mechanism seeks to secure vaccines for poorer nations. GAVI alliance head Seth Berkley said AstraZeneca’s supply chain had in fact “picked up” when asked whether the vaccine was being shunned.
“As countries decide they are going to prioritise one vaccine or another, that may free up doses, and in so doing we will try to make sure those doses are made available without delay, if countries are willing to make that happen,” he said.
Australia doubled its orders for Pfizer after its health body recommended that people under 50 receive an alternative vaccine. Greece followed Britain’s example in recommending that people under 30 seek an alternative jab.
AstraZeneca said it was working with regulators “to understand the individual cases, epidemiology and possible mechanisms that could explain these extremely rare events”.
Sabine Straus, chair of the EMA’s safety committee, said that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) received reports of 169 cases of the rare brain blood clot by early April, after 34 million doses had been administered.
Most of the cases reported had occurred in women under 60.
On Friday, the EMA said that if a causal relationship is confirmed or considered likely, regulatory action will be needed to minimise risk. It is also investigating Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) vaccine over reports of blood clots. US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci however said there were no red flags reported for the J&J vaccine.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is the cheapest and most high-volume vaccine to date to curb the pandemic and avert damaging lockdowns, but supplies have been beset by delays.
However, new data in the EU, beset by delays, showed that the pace of vaccine deliveries was picking up. Germany said it was accelerating inoculations but needed a new lockdown as well.
“Every day in which we don’t act, we lose lives,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, said.
Hong Kong Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the city would defer its order of the AstraZeneca vaccine this year “so as not to cause a waste when the vaccine is still in short supply globally”, adding that the government was considering buying a new, more effective type of vaccine.
All the countries recommending age limits for the AstraZeneca shot have emphasised that its benefits far outweigh the risks of catching COVID for older people. Even so, some people have been put off; in Madrid half of over 60s meant to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine turned up, a day after Spain’s recommendation that younger people get a different shot.
In France, where vaccine hesitancy is high, the top health body recommended that those over 55 who had received a first dose of the AstraZeneca shot get a new-style messenger-RNA vaccine for the second one: either the Pfizer/BioNTech one or Moderna’s.