Politics

EU ruptures: AstraZeneca row exposes glaring chasm between bloc’s west and east states

AstraZeneca: Vaccine hesitancy rising in Spain says expert

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Several western EU countries suspended the use of the Oxford vaccine last month. After its resumption, some limited its use to older people only over fears it would cause blood clots for younger generations. But the move only served to increase scepticism about vaccines in Europe and to show a huge split between western and easter parts of the EU.

Eastern member states took a substantially different approach to the AstraZeneca debacle, with nine of 11 nations in the region deciding to keep administrating the shot to all adults.

The former Eastern Bloc is home to almost a quarter of all the EU’s 440 million population.

It is also made of the countries struggling to tackle the pandemic the most in the EU.

For them it would be unthinkable to stop the inoculation of a vaccine that is vital to the recovery of their already battered economies compared to western states.

They simply cannot afford a slower vaccination strategy – something that limiting the use of one of the vaccines on offer would inevitably cause.

AstraZeneca is also the easiest vaccine to be transported and stored compared to the ones produced by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.

Hungary, the first country to stray from the EU-managed vaccine procurement programme by purchasing Chinese and Russian jabs, defended the Anglo-Swedish producers.

The country’s government said: “The debate surrounding AstraZeneca’s vaccine should be viewed as a business struggle between drugmakers rather than valid opinions on medical risks.”

A day earlier both EU and UK regulators confirmed a possible like between the AstraZeneca jab and blood clots, though reiterating that the risks were far outweighed by the benefits of using the vaccine in the fight against coronavirus.

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Bulgaria will also keep applying the Astra shot to all age groups but will offer a different jab to women with a high risk of thrombosis, in line with European Medicines Agency recommendations.

In Croatia, among the nations that have predominantly ordered AstraZeneca, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said he and other leaders have been administered the shot, stressing the “vaccine is safe and people should get vaccinated”.

In Estonia, premier Kaja Kallas, who at 43 would be considered to be in a more risky age category for the AstraZeneca shot in Western Europe, expressed disappointment in her coalition partner for postponing his vaccination.

The Estonian government and parliament decided last month to get the Oxford shots for all its members.

And Latvian prime minister Krisjanis Karins said last week that it is better to get any vaccine than risk getting the disease.

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Millions of doses of the AstraZeneca shot have been safely administered around the world but some governments have limited its use to older age groups as a precaution while cases of clotting are investigated.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said most countries did not have anywhere near enough shots of any vaccine to cover health workers and others at high risk from exposure to the virus, which has killed almost 3 million people around the world.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said high-income countries had on average vaccinated one in four people while in low-income countries it was one in more than 500.

“There remains a shocking imbalance in the distribution of vaccines,” he told a press briefing on Friday.

The WHO and GAVI vaccine alliance’s COVAX mechanism aims to ensure vaccines reach poorer states. Asked whether COVAX was negotiating for doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that had been shunned, GAVI alliance head Seth Berkley said the Anglo-Swedish company’s supply chain had “picked up”.

“As countries decide they are going to prioritise one vaccine or another, that may free up doses, and in so doing we will try to make sure those doses are made available without delay, if countries are willing to make that happen,” he said.

Giving alternative vaccines to younger recipients will delay inoculation campaigns by around a month in Australia, France and Britain, science information and analytics company Airfinity forecast after crunching the numbers for those countries.

Australia said it had doubled its order of the Pfizer shot after health authorities recommended those under 50 take it instead of AstraZeneca. Greece followed Britain in recommending people under 30 get an alternative shot.

AstraZeneca said it was working with regulators “to understand the individual cases, epidemiology and possible mechanisms that could explain these extremely rare events”.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) received reports of 169 cases of the rare brain blood clot by early April, after 34 million doses had been administered, Sabine Straus, chair of the EMA’s safety committee, said this week.

Most of the cases reported had occurred in women under 60.

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