Boris Johnson takes on AstraZeneca vaccine doubters by declaring it ‘safe’

UK Prime Minister joins European Medicines Agency in brushing off blood clot link

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Boris Johnson said the British-made AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine provided protection for the whole world to dispel concern over its temporary ban in Europe.

The UK Prime Minister's defence of the shot comes as scientists questioned the decision of several European states to suspend inoculations using AstraZeneca's drug after reported cases of blood clots in recipients.

On Monday, Germany, France, Italy and Spain halted distribution of the vaccine, while Austria, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland suspended its use last week.


The European Medicines Agency said “many thousands of people develop blood clots annually in the EU for different reasons” and that the number of incidents in vaccinated people “seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population”.

The regulator’s safety committee were due to meet later on Tuesday to analyse data and any decision on further action will be announced on Thursday.

The EMA said it “currently remains of the view that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19, with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death, outweigh the risks of side-effects”.

Mr Johnson hailed the vaccine’s effectiveness and said it demonstrated Britain’s influence worldwide.

"That vaccine is safe and works extremely well, and now, only six months later, it is being made in multiple places from India to the US, as well as Britain, and it is being used around the world," he wrote in The Times.

“It is relatively easy to distribute, since it can be kept in an ordinary fridge, and under the terms of the deal struck between Oxford and the UK government it is being dispensed at cost.”

He said its global distribution was central to his government’s post-Brexit foreign policy aims.

“The objective of Global Britain is not to swagger or strike attitudes on the world stage. It is to use the full spectrum of our abilities, now amplified by record spending on both defence and science, to engage with and help the rest of the world,” he said.

“That is how we serve the British interest, and I mean the economic interest of people up and down the country. And as the vaccine programme begins to inspire a new global hope, we want to use this moment to heal, both literally and figuratively.”

The World Health Organisation, which is supplying the AstraZeneca drug to poor countries through its Covax initiative, said countries should not pause deliveries while an investigation into the blood clotting incidents is ongoing.

“As of today, there is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine, and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

Karl Lauterbach, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Cologne and a German MP, also criticised the decisions to suspend the vaccine.

“Based on the data available, I consider this to be a mistake,” he said.

“Testing without suspension of vaccination would have been better because of the rarity of the complication. In the third wave, which is now picking up speed, the first vaccinations with the AstraZeneca vaccine would be lifesavers.”

Scientists sound warning against AstraZeneca ban 

Prof Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London said the suspensions could be a “disaster” for vaccine take-up in EU nations.

France and Germany previously denied people over 65 access to the vaccine, although both reversed those decisions.

I keep hearing the phrase 'abundance of caution' being used in reference to countries pausing rollout of the Oxford vaccine but is it really caution?"

"I think it is very clear that the benefits of being vaccinated at the moment ... outweigh the possible concern over this rather rare type of blood clot," Prof Openshaw told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

“It really is a completely one-sided argument statistically that we need to be vaccinating. I think it is a disaster for the vaccination uptake in Europe, which is already on slightly unsteady ground in some countries.”

“I think the committees are probably afraid of not making that decision to pause on the basis that they might be in some way thought culpable if they didn’t, but actually these are such rare events,” Prof Openshaw said when asked why suspension of the AstraZeneca drug was so widespread.

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, said it was “reckless” to stop using the vaccine.

“I keep hearing the phrase ‘abundance of caution’ being used in reference to countries pausing rollout of the Oxford vaccine, but is it really caution?” he said.

AstraZeneca said 15 events of deep-vein thrombosis and 22 events of pulmonary embolism, blood clots in a vein or lung, respectively, were reported among those immunised in the UK or EU.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 25: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson watches a patient receiving a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine during a visit to Barnet FC's ground at The Hive, north London, which is being used as a coronavirus vaccination centre on January 25, 2021 in London, England. Government figures show that 6.3 million people across the UK have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, as 32 more vaccination centres open across England. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson watches a patient receiving a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine during a visit to Barnet Football Club’s ground at The Hive, north London. Getty

These figures were "much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed Covid-19 vaccines".

Joao Vale de Almeida, the bloc’s UK ambassador, defended the suspensions of the vaccine. “It is not an EU decision, these are decisions taken by individual governments,” he said.

“Like the British government, all our governments are worried, concerned and focused on the safety of citizens. When doubts appear for whatever reason, I think the principle of caution prevails.”