Europe’s vaccine campaign has hit a crisis of confidence. Just as the coronavirus pandemic appears to be setting off a new wave of infections, leading European countries have paused the rollout of the AstraZeneca/ Oxford University two-dose vaccine following isolated reports of blood clots. Naturally, any adverse affects must be thoroughly investigated, but this is a race against time, and the virus isn’t waiting around. European leaders must get the vaccine train back on track—and fast.
More than a dozen countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, temporarily suspended the AstraZeneca rollout after reports last week that some people in Denmark and Norway who got a dose had developed blood clots. There was no evidence that the shot caused them. The company says that out of 17 million doses given in Britain and Europe as of March 8, there were only 37 incidents of blood clots, less than what would be expected to occur naturally in a population of this size.
The governments insisted they were acting out of an abundance of caution, with a goal of keeping public trust. But the European Medicines Agency urged the governments not to halt use of the vaccine at a time when the pandemic is still taking thousands of lives each day, saying the benefits outweighed any possible risk.
European vaccine uptake is already lagging. In the European Union, just 11 doses for every 100 people have been administered, compared with 32 in the United States and 38 in Britain. The AstraZeneca vaccine is based on conventional viral-vector technology, like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but has been buffeted by problems, including questions about the clinical trial data, doubts raised (and later determined to be unfounded) about whether it would work for those older than 65, and a shortfall of the supply promised to the EU.
The “pause” in the vaccine rollout may well deepen doubts about getting the shot. That is the last thing Europe needs. Weekly infection rates are high in the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, France and elsewhere. The vaccine is a bulwark against the pandemic, but only if people are vaccinated.
A lesson of this moment is that no medicine is 100 percent safe and effective. The flu vaccine must be reformulated every year to cope with mutations. Despite widespread use of the measles vaccine, outbreaks still occur.
Europe has an enormous job ahead to vaccinate tens of millions. Everyone should expect speed bumps, be vigilant for serious problems—but avoid panic.