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AstraZeneca’s vaccines go unused in Europe as mutants spread

Published: Updated:

Just weeks ago, the European Union was clamoring for AstraZeneca Plc’s COVID-19 vaccine. Now, fewer than one-tenth of the doses delivered to Germany have been administered in the initial days of the roll-out, and some health-care workers say they’re concerned about side effects.

Germany isn’t alone: Some French health workers are also pushing to get shots from Moderna Inc., Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE instead. Their reluctance comes after a clash last month over whether EU countries would get their fair share of AstraZeneca’s shipments as deliveries slowed.

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The EU vaccine campaign is already far behind that of the US and U.K., and catching up will be impossible in the near term unless people are willing to take the 300 million shots the bloc ordered from AstraZeneca. Media reports about unexpectedly strong side effects prompted Health Minister Jens Spahn to say Wednesday that the immunization is “safe and effective and that he wouldn’t hesitate to get it himself.

The 40-year-old Spahn probably won’t get any vaccine for some time as Germany prioritizes older people and health-care workers. The EU on Wednesday moved to bolster vaccine supplies by confirming new orders with Pfizer and BioNTech as well as Moderna. Meanwhile, the more contagious mutant virus that originated in the U.K. is spreading, making up more than one-fifth of new cases in Germany.

In an ambulance corps in Dortmund, one-quarter of the 300 people vaccinated late last week with the AstraZeneca shot called in sick afterward, a local newspaper reported, citing internal fire-department documents. Health officials in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Dortmund is located, recommended vaccinating smaller groups of health-care workers at a time to avoid staffing shortages, DPA reported.

“Of course we are looking into the reports of side-effects and taking them very seriously, Spahn told reporters in Berlin. “At the same time it’s very important to differentiate between the expected reaction to inoculation and side-effects that aren’t expected.

At AstraZeneca, a spokesman said the drugmaker hasn’t seen reports of reactions that don’t fit with evidence gathered during clinical trials and repeated that there have been no serious adverse events associated with the product. The documented side effects include headaches, fatigue, chills, feverishness, malaise and muscle aches.

Germany’s Paul Ehrlich Institute has detected “next to no unexpected side-effects in the three approved vaccines, Spahn said. The institute is monitoring feedback for all the vaccines closely to see whether they match what was observed in clinical trials and will issue its next report Thursday, a spokeswoman said in an email.

Professor Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group (OVG), and a professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, Britain, on January 4, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
Professor Andrew Pollard, Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group (OVG), and a professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, Britain, on January 4, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

Vaccinations with AstraZeneca’s shot started the first weekend of February in Europe, about five weeks after the U.K. British officials list similar side-effect profiles for the different shots.

The roll-out faces potential logistical challenges, with many European countries recommending the vaccine only be given to people under the age of 65 until more data on use in older people is published. That means health authorities have to sift individuals at high priority for vaccines into two groups, with the elderly getting the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines and doctors, nurses and nursing-home staff shunted toward the AstraZeneca product.

In southwestern France, a hospital in Perigueux found that 50 percent to 70 percent of its health professionals who were immunized had side effects, some of them “very heavy, and asked in an open letter that the AstraZeneca vaccine be replaced with shots from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.

On the web platform doctolib.fr, where vaccination appointments are booked, there are hundreds of available slots for the Astra shot for health-care professionals, and few for the two other vaccines.

At the end of January, President Emmanuel Macron raised doubts about the Astra vaccine’s benefits for the elderly, saying it was “almost ineffective for those 65 and older. There’s a lack of clinical data to document the product’s efficacy in the elderly, but no evidence that it doesn’t work.

Spain is limiting use of the vaccine to people aged 55 and under. Some 418,000 AstraZeneca vaccines have been delivered to the nation’s regions, but less than 35,000 have so far administered. The government is relying mostly on the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, which accounts for 95 percent of the 2.7 million doses administered.

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