The AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. Photo: AFP / Joel Saget

The EU’s medicines regulator said Wednesday that blood clots should be listed as a rare side effect of the AstraZeneca jab, but the benefits continue to outweigh the risks, as several countries battle fresh virus surges amid vaccine shortfalls.

A number of nations have suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine for younger populations after it was earlier banned outright in several places over blood clot scares.

The United Kingdom on Wednesday said it will adopt new medical advice to offer most people under 30 an alternative to AstraZeneca if possible, after reporting 19 deaths from clots among people who received the shot.  

The debate comes as countries from Germany to Ukraine and India face new waves of the virus that has now killed more than 2.8 million people.

Governments are scrambling to secure much-needed vaccine doses, with Australia the latest nation to complain of shortages that it blamed on EU export controls. 

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said Wednesday that blood clots should be listed as a “very rare” side effect, encouraging countries to continue its use. 

The announcement came after the EMA examined 86 blood clotting cases, 18 of which were fatal, out of about 25 million people in Europe who received the AstraZeneca vaccine. Most of the cases were in women aged under 60.

But EMA chief Emer Cooke said no particular risk factor had been identified and the clots may be linked to an immune response to the vaccine.  

“The benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19 overall outweigh the risk of side effects,” she told a news conference. “It is saving lives.”

‘Plausible but not confirmed’

The World Health Organization’s vaccine experts on Wednesday echoed the EMA’s findings, saying a causal relationship between the vaccine and blood clots was “plausible but is not confirmed.” 

“We believe the benefit-risk balance is very much in favor of the vaccine,” said the WHO.

AstraZeneca itself said two studies by British and European regulators “reaffirmed” that the benefits of its vaccine “far outweigh the risks.”

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands are among countries not recommending the shot for younger people.

Britain’s decision to offer an alternative jab if possible to most people under 30 came after data showed 79 blood clots and 19 deaths among people who had received one of 20 million AstraZeneca doses administered in the UK.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been administered in at least 111 countries, more than any of its rivals, according to AFP data. It is being used both in wealthier countries and poor nations, largely as part of the Covax scheme to ensure equitable access to vaccines.

The controversy surrounding the jab has marred a global vaccine rollout that will help countries emerge from a pandemic that has ravaged the world’s economy and subjected much of humanity to some form of confinement. 

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed support for a snap lockdown to stem rising cases, after decentralized measures failed to quell outbreaks. 

Hard-hit France imposed tighter measures this week, as French Open organizers announced the tennis tournament would be delayed by one week until May 30 in the hopes of accomodating more fans.

Ukraine on Wednesday reported record new deaths and hospitalizations after tightening measures in the capital. 

Canada’s most populous province of Ontario was ordered into a four-week lockdown, while Qatar reimposed strict measures.

India, which registered a 24-hour record of almost 116,000 new cases on Wednesday, said it too would rollout tougher curbs with new curfews in place in 20 cities, including the capital New Delhi. 

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, however, doubled down on his opposition to lockdown measures, despite the country registering its deadliest day yet on Tuesday with more than 4,000 deaths.

“We’re not going to accept these policies of ‘stay home, close everything, lock down,'” he said.

Amnesty slams hoarding

Australia was facing vaccine woes of its own, after only 700,000 of a contracted 3.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were delivered. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison blamed the EU for the shortages, accusing the bloc of “strict export controls.” 

More than 694 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been administered globally, according to an AFP tally, with just a handful of countries leading the pack by a wide margin.

Israel has inoculated 61% of its people with one dose, while the US has administered 33% with a first shot.

Amnesty International said in its annual report that wealthy countries are failing a test of global solidarity by hoarding Covid vaccines.

Echoing calls to help hard-hit nations, G20 finance ministers and central bankers agreed to extend a moratorium on debt interest payments for the poorest countries.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, where around 60% of adults have received a first dose, health workers started rolling out the Moderna jab, the third approved after AstraZeneca and Pfizer. 

“I’m an unpaid carer for my grandmother so it is very important to me that I get it, so I can care for her properly and safely,” said 24-year-old Elle Taylor.