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VACCINE

Spain to resume AstraZeneca vaccinations from Wednesday March 24th: health minister

Spain said on Thursday it will resume its Covid-19 inoculation campaign with the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine next week, after the EU's drug regulator deemed the jab "safe and effective".

Spain to resume AstraZeneca vaccinations from Wednesday March 24th: health minister
Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP

Health Minister Carolina Darias told a news conference that Spain will start using the vaccine again “next week, namely Wednesday”.

“The decision was taken unanimously as the benefits outweighed the risks, in line with the findings from the European Medicines Agency,” Darias told a news briefing after a meeting with Spain’s regional health chiefs.

The unanimous decision was taken by Spain’s Interterritorial Council of the National Health System (CISNS) after hearing the results from the investigation by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Ángela Domínguez, the coordinator of the vaccination program of the Spanish Epidemiology Society, emphasized that this process should give people confidence because it is a clear sign that “the pharmacovigilance system works”.

The EMA’s Executive Director Emer Cooke said the agency’s expert committee came to “a clear and scientific conclusion”.

“This is a safe and effective vaccine whose benefits in protecting people from Covid-19 hugely outweigh the risks,” she said, but added that further studies would be conducted to rule out possible links between the injection and rare blood clotting cases.

Cooke said that the vaccine was not associated with an increased risk of thromboembolic events or blood clotting, but did add that based on the available evidence “we still cannot rule out definitely a link between these cases and the vaccine.”

In the report on its website the EMA said: “The vaccine may be associated with very rare cases of blood clots associated with thrombocytopenia, i.e. low levels of blood platelets (elements in the blood that help it to clot) with or without bleeding, including rare cases of clots in the vessels draining blood from the brain (CVST)”.

Before vaccinations with AstraZeneca resume, Spain’s public health commission will meet again to discuss which groups the vaccine will be used on.

The country had been planning on extending the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the over 55s, due to more data being available on its effectiveness, however, they are now planning to review the EMA’s data to decide whether this plan will still go ahead. On Monday, March 22nd, the CISNS will make the final decision on this.

Earlier on Thursday, March 18th, a group of health experts at Oslo University Hospital concluded that the blood clots in three health workers who took the AstraZeneca vaccine were triggered by an immune system response.

Most of the blood clots that have been detected have been found in women around the age of 40.

The UK, which has administered more of the vaccine than other EU countries, has reported fewer such events than its neighbours, however.

While millions have been injected with the vaccine developed with Oxford University, small numbers of people have developed blood clots, which prompted Spain and other EU countries such as Germany, France, and Italy to suspend injections pending the EMA investigation.

READ MORE: Spain probes death of Marbella teacher after AstraZeneca jab

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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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