Governments give varying advice on AstraZeneca vaccine

A patchwork of advice was emerging from governments across Europe and farther afield, a day after the European Union’s drug regulator said there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and a rare clotting disorder while reiterating the vaccine is safe and effective.

Regulators in the United Kingdom and the EU both stressed that the benefits of receiving the vaccine continue to outweigh the risks for most people, and the EU agency maintained its guidance that the vaccine can be used in all adults. But experts fear the confusing messages about the vaccine could still dampen enthusiasm for it at a time when Europe and many other parts of the world are facing surging cases.

Experts hammered home the rarity of the clots Thursday.

“The risks appear to be extremely low from this very rare side effect,” Anthony R. Cox, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Pharmacy, told the BBC. “I mean it’s the equivalent of the risk of dying in the bath, drowning in the bath, for example, it’s that rare, or a plane landing on your house.”

The EU is trying, but so far failing, to avoid different policies among its 27 nations, which all look to the European Medicines Agency for guidance. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides called Wednesday evening for a coherent approach to ensure that “on the basis of the same set of evidence, similar decisions are taken in different member states.”

News of the tiny risk already is already having an effect on some vaccination takeup. In Croatia, the government said that one in four people due to get an AstraZeneca shot Thursday didn’t show up. Poland, too, has also seen people cancel or not appear for appointments to get the vaccine.

European Commission spokesman Stefan De Keersmaecker said Thursday that the EMA’s findings were based on its stringent monitoring system and that should promote trust among the bloc’s 27 member states.

“We want to avoid, of course, a vaccination hesitancy,” he said.

The top official with the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention insisted Thursday the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits outweigh its risks and that his group is not issuing new recommendations.

He said the overarching message from the U.K. and EU regulators was clear.

“The benefits outweigh the risks because these are very rare occurrences that they are picking up due to very strong surveillance systems that they have put in place,” John Nkengasong told a briefing. “So, I think these vaccines continue to be safe.”

Africa’s target is to vaccinate 60% of its 1.3 billion people by the end of 2022 — a goal that could prove extremely hard to achieve without widespread use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose country’s vaccination program leans heavily on AstraZeneca’s shot, announced that the Pfizer vaccine should now be adopted as the preferred vaccine for people under 50.

“We’ve been taking the necessary precautions based on the best possible medical advice,” Morrison said. “It has not been our practice to jump at shadows.”

Some EU nations were at pains to stress the safety and did not change their advice.

The Polish state TV broadcaster used a headline declaring “AstraZeneca is safe” during its live report on the vaccine.

The head of Italy’s drug regulator, Nicola Magrini, appealed for calm even as she said late Wednesday that Italy will now pivot from primarily using the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 65 to using it on those over 60.

Underscoring how such changing rules were causing confusion and anxiety, the governor of the Veneto region said Thursday that operators had fielded 8,000 calls about AstraZeneca in recent days. “Obviously there is some uneasiness spreading,” Luca Zaia told reporters.

Hungarian government minister Gergely Gulyas called the EMA announcement “a clear decision which is in line with the point of view of Hungarian authorities: AstraZeneca is reliable and provides protection.”

German officials made clear that they will stick to their current recommendation — issued March 30 when concerns about the rare clots were already circulating — to restrict the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 60 in most cases, in line with larger European nations including Spain and Italy.

“If we only had AstraZeneca as a vaccine and no alternative for the under-60s, then we would face considering … another possible result,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told WDR public radio on Thursday.

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Associated Press reporters around the world contributed.

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