EU resets AstraZeneca vaccine effort after chaos that may undermine trust

(Photo: Reuters)
Europe’s efforts to speed up its Covid-19 vaccination campaign now face the hurdle of damage to public trust after a chaotic week of vaccine suspensions, health scares and export-ban threats.

Countries across the European Union, including Germany, France and Spain, are resuming using AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccine after temporarily suspending it to investigate a possible blood-clot issue. But while the European Medicines Agency has cleared the shot for use, worries among citizens may linger.

Leaders, aware of the hit to confidence, are getting their own jabs to show it’s safe, with French Prime Minister Jean Castex taking his on Friday. Public confidence is crucial for the EU, which is trying to get a grip on a vaccine drive that’s lagging the U.S. and the U.K. and potentially delaying an economic recovery. The rising pace of cases and a renewed four-week lockdown in parts of France underscore the urgency of the threat.

The U.K. is also working to prevent any damage to its inoculation campaign. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was treated for Covid last year, will get vaccinated, and has said it will “certainly” be the Astra shot.

Europe can ill afford uncertainty about vaccine efficacy. The continent’s Covid-19 infection rate has increased for the past three weeks, to an average of 381 per 100,000 people, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The EU is trying to look ahead to the second quarter, when deliveries of vaccines are expected to pick up rapidy. The bloc has approved four shots for use.

“You can see that the political environment is getting a bit jittery, very nervous about making progress,’ said Maria Demertzis, deputy director at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. “I don’t think that will have a lasting effect. Within a month, we are going to see an acceleration of vaccination strategies in the EU and by then, things will calm down a little bit.”

In Italy, before the formal suspension, initial reports of fatalities of inoculated people had an immediate fallout. One immunization center in the small town of Villorba in the northern Veneto region said people stopped turning up for appointments.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Health Minister Jens Spahn will hold talks with regional leaders later on Friday as they try to speed the country’s sluggish vaccination drive. Spahn said Thursday that the EMA decision “confirms the safety and reliability of the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

“I have great confidence that the goal to vaccinate 70% of the adult population before the end of the summer will be reached,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Spanish newspaper El Mundo in an interview published Friday.

The EU drug regulator’s announcement capped a tumultuous few days that featured an agonizing back-and-forth over vaccine safety. But while the EMA cleared the shot, it said it couldn’t entirely rule out a link with some rare blood-clotting cases.

The EMA’s caveat on the clotting issue could prolong uncertainty that has surrounded the AstraZeneca since the trial phase, when a dosing mistake and different intervals between the two shots created confusion.

In Scandinavia, the EMA assurances weren’t enough to persuade national authorities to immediately resume vaccinations. Sweden, Denmark and Norway are keeping suspensions in place pending national reviews.

On Thursday, the agency’s executive director, Emer Cooke, sought to dispel lingering doubts, highlighting the bigger threat from the virus.

“This pandemic is costing lives,” she said. “We have vaccines that are safe and effective, that can help prevent death and hospitalization. We need to use those vaccines.”.
Norway PM to be probed by police


Norway’s prime minister, who faces elections in September, will be the subject of a police probe after she flouted her own government’s Covid restrictions. Erna Solberg admitted in an interview with state broadcaster NRK that she breached national guidelines when she took part in a family gathering that included more people than currently allowed. 

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