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After vaccine freeze, European countries seek a quick thaw

March 17, 2021 GMT
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French President Emmanuel Macron, center, French Health Minister Olivier Veran , second left, and Chief of Intensive Care Unit Dr. Jan Hayon, left, speak with staff working in the intensive care ward of the Poissy/Saint-Germain-en-Laye hospital, near Paris, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. With the virus rebounding from Paris to Budapest and beyond, European governments that rushed to suspend use of AstraZeneca vaccines after reports of blood clots are realizing the far-reaching impact of the move. (Yoan Valat, Pool via AP)
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French President Emmanuel Macron, center, French Health Minister Olivier Veran , second left, and Chief of Intensive Care Unit Dr. Jan Hayon, left, speak with staff working in the intensive care ward of the Poissy/Saint-Germain-en-Laye hospital, near Paris, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. With the virus rebounding from Paris to Budapest and beyond, European governments that rushed to suspend use of AstraZeneca vaccines after reports of blood clots are realizing the far-reaching impact of the move. (Yoan Valat, Pool via AP)

PARIS (AP) — First, France abruptly halted AstraZeneca vaccinations. Now, the French prime minister wants to get one as soon as he can.

With the virus rebounding from Paris to Budapest and beyond, European governments that rushed to suspend use of AstraZeneca vaccines after reports of blood clots are realizing the far-reaching impact of the move. And they suddenly seem eager for any signal — or fig leaf — that allows them to resume the shots.

That could come as soon as Thursday, when the European Medicines Agency releases initial results of its investigations into whether there is a connection between the vaccine and the blood clots. So far, the EMA and World Health Organization have said there’s no evidence the vaccine is to blame.

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But experts worry that the damage already has been done. The suspensions by Germany, France, Italy, Spain and others have fueled doubts about the oft-maligned AstraZeneca vaccine, and vaccination efforts in general, as the world struggles to vanquish the pandemic.

“There are thousands of new cases in Germany, France, Italy, etc. every day. If you are halting vaccination during this ongoing pandemic, you know that people will die,” Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told The Associated Press.

While stressing the importance of investigating potentially dangerous side effects, he said, “It’s totally possible to investigate the signals without stopping the vaccine rollout.”

Some countries are sticking to the AstraZeneca vaccines. India vowed Wednesday to continue vaccinations, hours before Brazil’s health minister celebrated the first doses of AstraZeneca bottled in the country.

New coronavirus cases grew 10% globally last week, driven by surges in Europe and the Americas, the WHO reported Wednesday, urging continued vaccinations.

“The disease is turning the corner in the wrong direction, and we need to get that under control,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief. “We’re going to fall behind the virus again.”

Even before Thursday’s announcement by Europe’s medicines watchdog, the president of the European Commission made it clear that the AstraZeneca vaccine will remain a pillar of the EU’s vaccine strategy.

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“I trust AstraZeneca, I trust the vaccines,” Ursula von der Leyen said.

Instead of addressing the vaccination suspensions that have divided the EU, von der Leyen focused on the drug company’s supply problems and revived talk of export bans on vaccines made in the EU.

“AstraZeneca has unfortunately under-produced and under-delivered, and this painfully, of course, reduced the speed of the vaccination campaign,” she told reporters. She said the EU still aims to vaccinate 70% of all adults by September.

But the suspensions of AstraZeneca shots in a cascading number of countries have served another setback to the EU’s vaccination drive, which has been plagued by shortages and other hurdles and is lagging well behind the campaigns in Britain and the U.S. More than half of the EU’s 15 million AstraZeneca doses so far are still in storage because of prior problems.

Almost as soon as France’s president froze the vaccinations Monday, top French officials started worrying about the impact on public opinion in a country where many already viewed the AstraZeneca vaccine as second-class and where vaccine skepticism is broad.

The government now hopes to announce resumed vaccinations as soon as Thursday. The Paris region is facing new lockdown measures this week as more contagious, more damaging virus variants have pushed intensive care units beyond capacity and sent infections resurging, despite a 6 p.m. nationwide curfew and the long-term closure of restaurants and many businesses.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex, who at age 55 and with no known underlying health problems is not eligible yet for a vaccination, said on national television Tuesday night that “it would be wise that I get vaccinated very quickly, as soon as the suspension is, I hope, lifted.”

Castex said he wants to demonstrate to his fellow citizens “that vaccination is the exit door from this crisis.”

Italy is toeing a similar line. Health Minister Roberto Speranza says European countries are hoping that the EMA on Thursday will deliver “the clarifications and reassurances necessary” to be able to resume administering the AstraZeneca vaccine “without hesitation.”

In Germany, where eight cases of blood clots are under investigation, officials defended the decision to suspend vaccinations for further investigation, but appeared ready to resume them soon. Health Ministry spokesman Hanno Kautz said, “It’s clear that the EMA decision is binding, and of course we will follow the EMA decision too.”

Lithuania’s president criticized its health minister’s decision to suspend the shots, saying it causes “enormous damage to entire vaccination process.”

The impact has reached beyond Europe, with some people snubbing the AstraZeneca vaccine as subpar even when it is the only one available.

Amós García, president of the Spanish Vaccinology Association, said it will be difficult for governments to rebuild trust in the overall coronavirus vaccination program, no matter what the EMA announces.

“The problem when a vaccine is put in doubt is not that it affects that vaccine, but that it affects the whole vaccination world,” he said.

“Possibly there has been an excess of zeal” among governments like Spain’s that suspended vaccinations, he said. But he praised Europe’s vaccine surveillance systems for quickly identifying and investigating the blood clot issues. Spain is examining three such cases.

Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias defended the decision to put a hold on the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying it is necessary to “continue building confidence” in efforts to fight COVID-19.

The EMA says thousands of people across the EU develop blood clots every year for a variety of reasons and that there were no reports of increased clotting incidents in clinical studies of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The company says there have been 37 reports of blood clots among the more than 17 million people who have received the vaccine across the EU and Britain.

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Cook reported from Brussels. Maria Cheng in London, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Colleen Barry in Milan and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

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