Spain receives first AstraZeneca vaccines but it won’t be used on over 55s

Spain received its first shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines on Saturday but it will only be used on people under the age of 55, according to the health ministry.

Spain receives first AstraZeneca vaccines but it won't be used on over 55s
Spain is the latest European country to limit the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Photo: AFP

Spain becomes the latest European nation to impose an age restriction on the Anglo-Swedish jab. It had previously said it would limit the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to under 65 year olds.

The move echoes earlier decisions by a growing number of countries in Europe that have restricted the vaccine's use despite the European Medicines Agency green lighting its use late last week for all adults.

“The public health commission, at a meeting on Friday and following scientific evidence, has approved setting as 55 the maximum age for people to get the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19,” the health ministry said in a statement.

Spain received 196.800 doses in its first shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines on Saturday.

Last week, the German vaccines authority advised against using AstraZeneca's vaccine for the over 65s, judging that there was “not enough data” on its effectiveness in this age group. 

The decision came just hours after the EU's medicines regulator gave the vaccine the green light for use in adults of all ages, saying it believed it would be safe for older people too.

READ ALSO: Can I choose which Covid-19 vaccine I get in Spain?

France followed suit on Tuesday and Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands and Sweden have taken similar steps. Switzerland has called for “additional studies” and although Italy approved the jab, it recommended using an alternative vaccine for the over-55s.

The Dutch Health Council said on Thursday that the vaccine's efficacy in people aged over 55 was unclear because only a small number of that age took part in clinical trials.

The age controversy compounds a row over a shortfall in deliveries from AstraZeneca that has forced the EU to recalibrate its vaccination strategy.

The AstraZeneca jab is only the third vaccine to be approved by the EU after those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. 

However its efficacy is reported to be just 60 percent, compared with more than 90 percent for the others. 

Spain has so far vaccinated just under two million people and plans to have covered 70 percent of its population by the summer's end, a goal reaffirmed on Wednesday by the government despite shortages and delays in vaccine supplies. 

READ ALSO: How can Spain hope to beat coronavirus with 'vaccine wars' brewing?

Also on Wednesday, Health Minister Carolina Darias said Spain was “open” to the idea of using Russia's Sputnik V vaccine as long as it was approved by European regulators. 

Spain has been hard-hit by the pandemic, recording over 61,000 deaths from nearly three million cases so far.

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.