Germany, France and Italy became the latest European countries to halt the rollout of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine Monday, as scientists investigated reports of possible adverse side effects among several people in Norway who received the injection.
Norwegian officials said Saturday that one person had died from a brain hemorrhage and three others were hospitalized with blood clots shortly after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine.
"So far, we cannot speak to whether the cases are connected to the vaccine. But due to the seriousness of the cases, we are investigating thoroughly," Sigurd Hortemo, chief physician at the Norwegian Medicines Agency, told reporters in Oslo.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the AstraZeneca drug is safe to use and urged countries to continue with their vaccination programs.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Monday the decision to pause the rollout was a "purely precautionary measure. Millions of AstraZeneca vaccinations have been administered across the globe. All of us are very aware of the consequences of this decision, and we did not take this decision lightly," Spahn told a press conference in Berlin.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the suspension would be lifted as soon as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) gave its approval.
"The decision, which has been taken out of precaution, in conformity with our European policy, is to suspend, by precaution, vaccinating with the AstraZeneca vaccine in the hope that we can resume quickly if the EMA gives the green light," Macron told reporters Monday.
The suspension appears to be further undermining confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine among the European public. Germany and France had already been accused of fueling skepticism after recommending in January that the drug not be given to people over 65, a position both governments later reversed.
"I would not have taken (the AstraZeneca vaccine) myself," 77-year-old Dutch citizen Marja Vestrik told Reuters on Monday, "though I think it's going to be all right in the end. If I had the choice, I wouldn't take AstraZeneca."
Other countries outside Europe have also paused AstraZeneca vaccinations, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia.
WHO said there is no evidence that the AstraZeneca vaccine causes blood clots and urged countries to continue using it.
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, a clinical scientist, said that all the vaccines approved by WHO had excellent safety records.
"Of the 330 million vaccines doses that have been deployed, we are not aware of any one confirmed COVID vaccine-related death. There have been deaths following vaccination in people, but people die of diseases every day," Swaminathan said at a virtual press conference Monday.
AstraZeneca insisted Monday that the vaccine is safe and echoed WHO's view that there is no evidence of a link to blood clots. Out of the 17 million people in Europe who have received its vaccine, AstraZeneca says fewer than 40 have developed blood clots, which health experts say is a lower rate than in the general population.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave his support to the AstraZeneca vaccine Monday, which was developed in conjunction with the University of Oxford.
"We have one of the toughest and most experienced (medicine) regulators in the world. They see no reason at all to discontinue the vaccination program for any of the vaccines that we're currently using," Johnson said.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is a key pillar of many countries' mass inoculation programs. It is relatively cheap and does not need to be stored at ultra-low temperatures, so it is seen as particularly suitable for less well-funded health systems, especially in parts of Africa.
Nigerian health workers began to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine Friday.
"We don't believe that this information is a reason for us to slow down our COVID-19 vaccination response," Lagos State Health Commissioner Akin Abayomi said Friday.
Scientists fear the halt in vaccinations could affect global confidence in the vaccines.
"It clearly has to be investigated. I think the big concern, though, is that we do know that, especially at a time when the disease is still actually very common and increasing across a number of European countries, that ultimately any delay in vaccinations will lead to more severe cases and more deaths," Paul Hunter, a professor at the Norwich School of Medicine, told VOA in an interview Monday.
"It will make it more difficult for people to accept the vaccine. It will put people off. And if it does that, as it almost certainly will, it will lead to more people getting ill, more people getting severely ill and more people dying."
Hunter added that investigations into reported side effects could have unintended consequences.
"As soon as you start worrying about a particular adverse outcome, then more people are likely to report that outcome. And you can actually almost generate a false impression of an epidemic purely because of increased reporting, because people have heard this sort of thing on the news," he said.
The AstraZeneca vaccine has just received official approval in Brazil, one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic. It has yet to be authorized for use in the United States, as regulators await the results of Phase 3 trials, expected in the next few weeks.