By Giulia Segreti and Caroline Copley
ROME/BERLIN (Reuters) – France expressed hope European medical experts would clear up questions over the safety of AstraZeneca (NASDAQ:)’s COVID-19 shot on Thursday, as experts warned the decision by major European states to stop using it posed a greater risk to public health.
In a coordinated step, the European Union’s largest members – Germany, France and Italy – suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on Monday pending the outcome of an investigation by the bloc’s medicines regulator into isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and low platelet counts.
They were joined by Sweden and Latvia on Tuesday, bringing to more than a dozen the number of EU countries that have acted since reports first emerged of thromboembolisms affecting people after they got the AstraZeneca shot.
The World Health Organization and European Medicines Agency have joined AstraZeneca in saying there is no proven link.
“The choice is a political one,” Nicola Magrini, the director general of Italy’s medicines authority AIFA told daily la Repubblica in an interview.
Magrini called the AstraZeneca vaccine safe and said its benefit to risk ratio was “widely positive”. There have been eight deaths and four cases of serious side-effects following vaccinations in Italy, he added.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran also told reporters that the risk-reward ratio for the vaccine remained positive.
“We expect some kind of verdict from the European scientific community by Thursday afternoon, allowing us to resume the campaign,” Veran said. France’s vaccination chief Alain Fischer said he expected the suspension to be temporary.
Governments say they acted out of an abundance of caution, with German Health Minister Jens Spahn stating on Monday that the decision to suspend AstraZeneca was not political but based on expert advice.
He acted after Germany’s vaccine watchdog identified a unusual number of cases of a rare cerebral vein thrombosis. Out of 1.6 million people in Germany who had got the AstraZeneca, seven fell ill and three died.
The risk of dying of COVID is still orders of magnitude greater, especially among those most vulnerable such as the elderly, said Dirk Brockmann, an epidemiologist at the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious diseases.
“In the risk groups the risk of dying of COVID is much, much higher. That means one is probably 100,000 times more likely to die of COVID than because of an AstraZeneca vaccine,” Brockmann told ARD public television.
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