AstraZeneca jab faces suspensions as world marks pandemic anniversary
This picture shows vials of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Paris on March 11, 2021. European countries can keep using AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine during an investigation into cases of blood clots that prompted Denmark, Norway and Iceland to suspend jabs, the EU's drug regulator said on March 11, 2021.
AFP/Joel Saget

AstraZeneca jab faces suspensions as world marks pandemic anniversary

Danny Kemp (Agence France-Presse) - March 12, 2021 - 7:39am

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Several countries suspended the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine on Thursday over blood clot fears, prompting Europe's medical agency to quickly reassure the public there were no known health risks linked to the jab. 

The melee over the vaccine came as the world marked one year since the pandemic was officially declared, and threatened to dim hopes that inoculations are the ticket to returning to normal life.

The virus has now killed more than 2.6 million people, subjected billions to anti-Covid restrictions, and left the global economy in tatters — an outcome unimaginable at the outset of the crisis.  

A year on, several countries are looking to peel back restrictions put in place after second — or even third — waves and ramp up vaccine rollouts as a way out of the crisis. 

But that momentum hit a snag Thursday as Denmark, Norway and Iceland all suspended the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab over fears it could be linked to blood clots. 

Italy joined them, banning a batch of the vaccine as a precaution, even as its medicines regulator said there was currently no established link with the alleged side-effects. 

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) issued a statement seeking to assuage fears.

"The information available so far indicates that the number of thromboembolic events in vaccinated people is no higher than that seen in the general population," the EMA told AFP by email. 

The UK called the jab "safe and effective".

"When people are asked to come forward and take it, they should do so in confidence," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman said, as AstraZeneca shares plunged by more than 2.5 percent on the stock exchange. 

French Health Minister Olivier Veran said there was "no need" to suspend use of the vaccine.

Gavi, which co-leads the Covax programme for ensuring vaccines are equitably distributed globally, said it would wait to hear what the World Health Organization had to say. 

EU approves new jab

European Union countries are eager to speed up vaccine drives after a slow start left the bloc behind the United States, Israel and Britain — leaders in the race to immunise. 

Any further AstraZeneca suspensions could hamper already slow progress, with the EU under pressure to catch up and populations eager to return to a pre-pandemic reality. 

On Thursday, the EMA approved the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is stored at warmer temperatures than its competitors and is easier to distribute. 

"Authorities across the European Union will have another option to combat the pandemic and protect the lives and health of their citizens," EMA chief Emer Cooke said in a statement.

Adding to the optimism on Thursday, a real-world study in Israel showed the Pfizer/BioNTech jabs to be 97 percent effective against symptomatic Covid cases, higher than originally thought.

'War footing'

Since first emerging in China at the end of 2019, the coronavirus has infected nearly 118 million people, with few parts of the globe left untouched. 

The WHO officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11 last year as infection numbers were beginning to explode across Asia and Europe.

The only defences to the contagious virus then appeared to be face masks and stopping people from interacting.

Global aviation came to a near-standstill and governments imposed deeply unpopular restrictions, forcing billions of fearful people into some form of lockdown.

"We are on a war footing," Corinne Krencker, the head of a hospital network in eastern France told AFP on March 11 last year, as patient and death numbers began to surge.

Today, more than 300 million vaccine doses have been administered in 140 countries, according to an AFP tally.

'Light at the end of the tunnel'

Governments have started to cautiously roll back measures put in place over what turned out to be a deadly winter in many spots. 

Greece hopes to reopen for tourists in mid-May, a government official said Thursday.

France said it would ease travel restrictions from seven countries — including the UK — while Portugal was set to lift some of its anti-virus measures later Thursday. 

Portugal said it would reopen nurseries and primary schools on Monday, as part of a phased plan to ease the country's Covid-19 restrictions.

And the sports world — after a year of cancelled or spectator-less matches — also looked to a return to normal thanks to more jabs. 

The International Olympic Committee said athletes at the Tokyo Games and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games would be offered vaccines bought from China.

Meanwhile, in the United States, congress passed one of its biggest stimulus efforts ever — a $1.9-trillion package that President Joe Biden said would give struggling American families a "fighting chance".

Vaccination efforts there have gained momentum in recent weeks, with Biden vowing to have enough doses in place within months for the entire population in a country that has already clocked some 529,000 deaths, the highest in the world.

Biden will deliver a prime-time address on Thursday in which he will offer an optimistic vision for his nation. 

"There is real reason for hope, folks, I promise you," Biden said in a preview of his remarks. 

"There is light at the end of the tunnel." —  with AFP bureaus

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: May 6, 2021 - 9:00pm

Pharma giants Sanofi and GSK said on July 29, 2020, that they have agreed to supply Britain with up to 60 million doses of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. The agreement covers a vaccine candidate developed by France's Sanofi in partnership with the UK's GSK and is subject to a "final contract."

This thread collects some of the major developments in the search for a vaccine to ease the new coronavirus pandemic. (Main photo by AFP/Joel Saget)

May 6, 2021 - 9:00pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said he supported the idea of a waiver on patent protections for coronavirus vaccines and urged his government to consider lifting them for Russia's jabs.

A campaign to lift patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines picked up steam on Thursday, with French, German and EU leadership saying they were ready to discuss a proposal by US President Joe Biden before Putin added his voice in support.

"We are hearing from Europe an idea that, in my opinion, deserves attention -- namely, to remove patent protections from vaccines against COVID-19 altogether," Putin said during a televised meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova.

"Russia would of course support such an approach," Putin said, urging Golikova to work out the logistics.

"As I have said many times... We should not think about how to extract maximum profit, but about how to ensure people's safety."  — AFP

May 6, 2021 - 7:09pm

Germany is ready to hold talks on a US-backed proposal to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says.

"It is a discussion that we're open to," Mass tells reporters when asked about US Trade Representative Katherine Tai's announcement Wednesday that Washington now supports calls for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines while the pandemic rages.

Maas says Germany would join the discussion about such a move given the "extraordinary situation" of the global coronavirus outbreak. — AFP

May 6, 2021 - 7:04am

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations expresses disappointment Wednesday at the United States' decision to support a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines.

"As we have consistently stated, a waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem," the lobby group says in a statement, describing the US move as "disappointing". —  AFP

May 5, 2021 - 11:37am

Britain is spending £29.3 million ($40.6 million, 33.8 million euros) on new coronavirus vaccine laboratories in an effort to "future-proof the country from the threat of new variants", the government said Wednesday.

The new labs at the Porton Down research facility in southwest England will be used to test the effectiveness of vaccines against  variants and speed up their deployment, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

"We've backed UK science from the very start of this pandemic and this multi-million pound funding for a state-of-the-art vaccine testing facility at Porton Down will enable us to further future-proof the country from the threat of new variants," he says.

May 5, 2021 - 11:35am

The Group of Seven wealthy democracies will discuss coronavirus vaccines Wednesday as they face growing pressure to share stockpiles and know-how with poor nations trailing far behind on fighting the pandemic.

Foreign ministers of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States are wrapping up three days of talks in central London that will set the agenda for a G7 leaders' summit next month in Cornwall, southern England.

After a day focused on showing a common front of democracies towards China, the final sessions will also bring in development chiefs and address global challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. — AFP

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