The EU health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, reportedly told a teleconference of health ministers, discussing the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine on Wednesday that “it is essential to follow a coordinated European approach.” What was needed was “an approach which does not confuse citizens and does not fuel vaccine hesitancy.”
This sounded a lot more like wishful thinking considering Europe has done the exact opposite. There is no coordinated European approach and the approach followed is designed to cause confusion and uncertainty as each member-state sets its own rules for the use of the AZ vaccine, which is now regarded by many people as a bigger risk to health than Covid-19.
People’s fears have been compounded by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reporting on Wednesday a possible link between the AZ vaccine a very rare cases of blood clots. The EMA had already suspended the use of the vaccine for a few days last month so Wednesday’s assertion that the vaccine’s benefits far outweighed the risks was not very reassuring to people. If it was safe, why was the EMA regularly reassessing it?
European countries have decided that the vaccine should only be given to people aged over 55 (France, Belgium) or over 60 (The Netherlands, Italy) or over 65 (Finland, Sweden). In Germany and France there is now also discussion about people that have had on AZ shot to have a different vaccine for the second dose, although no decisions have been taken.
Are these fears justified? Probably not, as the adverse effects reported were a tiny fraction of doses administered. The EMA said there were 169 cases of the brain blood clot out of a total of 34 million doses administered in European Economic Area; most occurred in women under the age of 60. The proportion of people adversely affected by the AZ shot was 0.0005%, this has not allayed fears.
In Cyprus, it appears the ministry of health will end up with an excess supply of AZ vaccines because people are afraid of its effects. In a few days, vaccinations will be open to people under 60 years of age. How willing to have the AZ shot will people below this age be, considering many EU countries have decided against people under 60 using AZ? Cyprus has decided against any age restrictions for AZ and is in the company of Ireland, Austria, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Romania.
People’s fears, however, will delay the national vaccination programme and the target of vaccinating a sizeable proportion of the population by the end of June will not be met, said a disappointed health minister, Constantinos Ioannou on Wednesday. The government should not be deterred – the vaccination programme should continue by being opened to younger ages. Those who refuse to have the AZ shot will just have to wait for two, three, six months or more to be vaccinated, because the supply of other vaccines is unlikely to meet the demand.