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Concerns Over AstraZeneca's Vaccine Disrupt Campaigns For Shots


In Europe, a committee of experts from the European Medicines Agency is reviewing the safety of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine after reports of some people experiencing blood clots in the days after immunization. Multiple countries, including France, Germany and Spain, have suspended the use of the AstraZeneca shot over concerns that it may not be safe. But the head of the European Medicines Agency, Emer Cooke, today defended the vaccine. She said the position of the EMA is that countries should continue to use it, even as the safety review is ongoing.


EMER COOKE: We are still firmly convinced that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine and preventing COVID-19 outweigh the risk of these side effects.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien has been following this. Jason, so it sounds like you've got countries in Europe saying one thing, halt the use of the vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the European Medicines Agency saying, no, keep using it. So explain what's going on here.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Yeah. So this started last week with reports starting to build about incidents of people getting blood clots in the days after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine. And some of them, we should say, were fatal blood clots. Initially, it was 30 incidents from across Europe. Emer Cooke, the head of the EMA - she said that they're getting more reports. She wouldn't give an exact number but characterized these events as rare, given that five million people have gotten the AstraZeneca shot across Europe.


COOKE: A situation like this is not unexpected. When you vaccinate millions of people, it's inevitable that you have rare or serious incidences of illnesses that occur after vaccination.

BEAUBIEN: And right now, European regulators are trying to determine whether the timing of these incidents was just a coincidence or whether there's actually some link between the vaccine and these particular blood clots.

MARTÍNEZ: So is there evidence of a link?

BEAUBIEN: The EMA is saying that, so far, there's not evidence. They point out that the blood clots didn't come up as a concern during the extensive clinical trials. AstraZeneca has been used extensively in the U.K., and it wasn't seen as a problem there. But that's why they're trying to figure this out right now. They're investigating these individual cases. They're also looking statistically at what would be normal, the normal number of blood clots you'd expect to see on a daily basis in Europe. And what's the likelihood that someone seven days after getting immunized might get one of these? One official from the EMA says that, at the moment, it looks like the rate of blood clots among immunized people is actually lower than the usual background rate. But the EMA is doing damage control right now. They've got more than a thousand people dying every day from COVID, yet vaccination programs for COVID across the continent are in limbo as these blood clots are investigated.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. What's the plan in Europe? How are they going to resolve this?

BEAUBIEN: So the review committee is investigating. And they say they're going to have an answer or at least some guidance for countries on Thursday. But right now, they're trying to assure both the public and individual countries that they're taking this seriously. They're looking at the evidence and if there needs to be an updated recommendation, that they'll provide that.

MARTÍNEZ: And just to be clear, AstraZeneca is not being used in the U.S.

BEAUBIEN: That's correct. It's only been used in some clinical trials here in the U.S.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Jason, how important is this decision in Europe to vaccination efforts in other parts of the world?

BEAUBIEN: It is really huge. This is a very important vaccine globally. AstraZeneca is on track to provide more doses around the world this year than any other producer. Other manufacturers are producing it under licensing agreements in many parts of the world - in Argentina, India, South Korea. So getting clarity on whether or not it's safe and getting clarity on when these vaccination programs in Europe can get going again is really important.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, thanks a lot.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.