After Countries In Europe Suspended It, Experts Conclude AstraZeneca Vaccine Is Safe

Mar 18, 2021
Originally published on March 22, 2021 7:55 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Europe now and word that the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe for use. That's according to the European Medicines Agency, which regulates vaccines for the EU. Now, this comes days after a number of European countries suspended the vaccine following reports of a small number of blood clots among the millions of people who've received it. NPR's Rob Schmitz has been tracking this from Berlin.

Hey there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so the agency says benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh the risks. But what did they find when they investigated the vaccine and these blood clots?

SCHMITZ: Well, the agency said that out of nearly 20 million people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine, there were 25 reported cases of dangerous blood clotting. From these cases, the experts concluded that the incidence rate of life-threatening blood clots from those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine is actually lower than it is among the general public.

KELLY: OK, so the big takeaway they want us to take from this is Europeans should carry on and keep getting the vaccine if they have access to it.

SCHMITZ: That's right, with the caveat that Europeans who do receive the vaccine understand that there have been extremely rare cases of blood clotting. The agency is recommending that AstraZeneca update its warning labels and that vaccination centers and clinics distribute pamphlets that inform EU citizens about this very slim risk. At one point in the press conference today, the agency's executive director, Emer Cooke, was asked if she herself feels comfortable getting the vaccine. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

EMER COOKE: If it was me, I would be vaccinated tomorrow. But I would want to know that if anything happened to me after vaccination - what I should do about it. And that's what we're saying today.

KELLY: So Rob, she says she would take it, and they say...

SCHMITZ: Right.

KELLY: ...They can't confirm the cause of these rare clotting incidents. But are there any hypotheses they're exploring? I mean, what would explain this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, they were asked several questions about this, including why there weren't more cases of this type of clotting in the U.K., where half of all of AstraZeneca's vaccines have been administered. One theory is that the U.K. is focused on vaccinating senior citizens. And here in the EU, many medical personnel make up a bulk of those who've been vaccinated. And among those personnel are frontline workers who are young women. And that population tends to be more susceptible to this type of clotting for various reasons and were among the cases they reviewed. Experts are looking into that now and hope to have answers about that soon.

KELLY: Interesting. And meanwhile, the countries that have suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine - are they expected now to lift those suspensions?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, they will likely do that soon and resume vaccinating people with this vaccine. But health experts say even this week's suspension of this vaccine has likely cost a lot of lives. Hundreds of people are dying each day from COVID-19 in Europe, the symptoms of which include blood clotting.

And the EU's vaccination rollout has been marred with all sorts of problems, and many are blaming politicians for this. The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, is under considerable pressure, and this week, she's even threatened emergency measures that would halt vaccine exports from the EU to the U.K. and the U.S. The EU is a global COVID vaccine production hub, and putting up export controls would certainly send a strong message. But it could also lead to vaccine shortages worldwide if it came to that. But it's clear that EU politicians are scrambling to try and speed up what has been a very slow vaccine rollout.

KELLY: NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin.

Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.