Belgium and other countries to discontinue AstraZeneca vaccine

Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgian Minister of Health sought to reassure the country about the AstraZeneca vaccine, following a decision to temporarily pause administering it to those aged 18 to 55.

“There is no doubt that it is a good vaccine. It protects against the disease,” he said.  But he cautioned that it does have side effects, “like any vaccine.”

The decision by Belgium, to suspend using AstraZeneca, came after a finding by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and “very rare cases of blood clots” but that the benefits of the vaccine continue to outweigh the risks.

It was decided by the officials that Belgium will stop giving the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to people under age 56 for the next four weeks amid blood clot concerns, national and regional health ministers agreed today. People aged 55 or younger will temporarily receive other vaccines, such as the BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and soon the Johnson & Johnson jabs.

Health ministers said in a statement the move should have little to no impact on the country’s current vaccination campaign, since seniors over age 65 are currently the main people being prioritized for immunization, along with all adults who have comorbidities.
“There is no doubt that if you have the choice between vaccination with AstraZeneca or no vaccination, you should get vaccinated immediately with AstraZeneca,” Vandenbroucke emphasized during an interview on VRT Radio 1 Wednesday.
Following the advice of Belgium’s Superior Health Council, Vandenbroucke said the country would now, “use AstraZeneca for the somewhat older people and use the other vaccines earlier for the younger people.”

He added that this was only possible, “Because we have the luxury of choosing from a variety of vaccines and we can spread the risk without impacting our vaccination strategy.”

On the data presented by the EMA to a virtual meeting of European Health Ministers Vandenbroucke said, “We found that EMA still had homework,” adding he was not the only Minister to have raised this concern.

“We are not so happy that the EMA has not taken the analysis a little further, namely what is the best choice between the different vaccines for the different age groups

Last month Belgium had decided to continue its vaccination campaign for all people aged over 18 with the AstraZeneca vaccine, while other European countries suspended using the vaccine over blood-clotting concerns pending an investigation by the EMA.

Asked why Belgium had continued when others hadn’t, Vandenbroucke said: “If we had then decided not to use the vaccine anymore, we would have had to turn the campaign upside down. Fortunately, we did not do that then, because that would certainly have cost lives.”

Meanwhile, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) were also meeting on Tuesday but a spokesman stressed there was “no evidence” that the reported blood clots were linked to the vaccine. The halt decision comes just after the European Medicines Agency confirmed earlier in the day a “possible link” to “very rare” cases of blood clotting, but still backed continued use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in all adults. British officials, however, also said today that anyone under the age of 30 should be offered a different vaccine.

By Karishma Gwalani

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