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VACCINE

Several Spanish regions halt vaccinations from AstraZeneca batch under investigation

Health authorities in a growing number of Spanish autonomous communities have put aside a batch of AstraZeneca vaccines which are under investigation in other European countries.

Several Spanish regions halt vaccinations from AstraZeneca batch under investigation
Photo: Vano SHLAMOV/AFP

The regional governments of Andalusia, Catalonia, Castilla y León and the Canary Islands were the first to take vials belonging to the AstraZeneca batch under investigation off their vaccination plans on Friday, followed by Valencia and Asturias over the weekend.  

This comes after a recent review from Norway’s medical agency that reported four new cases of “serious blood clotting in adults”, leading Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland to temporarily halt their AstraZeneca vaccine rollout altogether over fears it could cause deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism and blood clotting among its populations.

Norway has said it cannot be sure the cases of blood clotting can be linked to the vaccine, but health authorities are investigating.

The governments of Italy, Austria, Latvia, Luxembourg, Estonia and Lithuania have also suspended inoculations from the ABV5300 batch.

Around 228,000 doses from this batch reportedly arrived in Spain in mid-February, several thousand of which have now been set aside across different regions while the European Medicines Agency (EMA) carries out its investigation, who have so far said there is “no indication that the vaccine caused these conditions”.

The ABV5300 vials number one million and were sent to 17 countries.

Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias on Saturday explained that Spain’s vials of batch ABV5300 were distributed in mid-February and had already been administered to the population.

“That batch doesn’t exist anymore,” Darias stressed, although regional authorities who’ve halted vaccinations of the batch under EU investigation have corrected the national health official and said they still had plenty of ABV5300 doses in stock.

READ MORE: How is Spain’s vaccine campaign going in each region?

There are no cases of serious blood clotting in adults who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine in Spain, Darias stated. 

The news comes as doctors in Spain were putting pressure on the government to offer the AstraZeneca vaccine to an older population group, arguing that the 60-79 age group is currently in ‘vaccine limbo’, since the Pfizer/Moderna doses are for over 80s and AstraZeneca ones for those under 56.

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Spanish Minister of Finance and Government spokesperson María Jesús Montero has for her part conveyed a message of “security” and “absolute tranquility” to Spanish citizens regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine, telling journalists on Friday that “all adverse reactions are being monitored since the beginning of the vaccination campaign.”

How have other countries reacted to the news?

A growing list of countries have suspended AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 shots amid fears over blood clots and other possible side effects, despite the company and the World Health Organization insisting there is no risk.

Here’s a recap:

Nordic countries sound alarm

Denmark is the first country on March 11th to say it will suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a precautionary measure over fears of blood clots in vaccinated people.

Iceland and Norway follow the same day, temporarily suspending use of all their supply of the vaccine citing similar concerns.

AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish company which developed the vaccine with Oxford University, defends the safety of its product.

Growing list

Bulgaria suspends the use of the vaccine on March 12th as it investigates the death of a woman with several underlying conditions who received the jab in the past week.

An initial probe suggested the woman died from heart failure and an autopsy found no link with the vaccination.

Thailand abruptly delays the start of its rollout of the vaccine the same day, joined by the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On Saturday Norwegian health officials report three more cases of blood clots or brain haemorrhages in younger people who received the jab, but say they can not yet say they were vaccine-related.

The next day Ireland and the Netherlands join the list of countries temporarily deferring the use of the vaccine.

Suspending batches

Austria announces on March 8th that it has stopped administering a batch of the vaccine following the death of a 49-year-old nurse from “severe bleeding disorders” days after receiving it.

Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Luxembourg also suspend the use of doses from the same batch, which has been delivered to 17 countries and included one million vaccines.

Italy’s medicines regulator on March 11th also bans the use of a batch as a precaution, triggering a similar decision from Romania.

And on March 14th Italy’s northern Piedmont region suspends use of the vaccine after the death of a teacher who had received it the day before.

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COVID-19

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.

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