WHO backs AstraZeneca vaccine, says benefits outweigh risks







This photo taken on March 5, 2021 shows the flag of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the agency's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
(FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

LONDON / PARIS / BUDAPEST / AMSTERDAM / LISBON / LONDON / ADDIS ABABA / BISSAU / HARARE / STOCKHOLM / MEXICO CITY / COPENHAGEN / TBILISI / MOSCOW / VIENNA / WINDHOEK / SOFIA / MADRID / DAKAR / BUDAPEST – The World Health Organization (WHO) said AstraZeneca’s vaccine should continue to be administered as the benefits outweigh its risks.

A WHO expert group is assessing the latest safety data and will communicate the findings once the review is completed, the agency said in a statement Wednesday.

Reports of blood clots in some people who received the shots led to several EU member states pausing the use of the vaccine, risking another slowdown in the region’s inoculation campaign. The European Medicines Agency is expected to provide a definitive assessment on Thursday.

WHO officials on Monday said preliminary data don’t show an association between blood clots and the vaccine. Blood clots occur frequently regardless: They are the third-most common cardiovascular disease globally, according to the WHO.

“No drug or vaccine could ever be 100 percent safe,” Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said on Monday. “You could have something that happens one in a million. But then you need to look at what’s the benefit of protecting people against a disease that’s killing millions against the potential risks.”

EU

The European Union (EU) on Wednesday threatened to ban exports of COVID-19 vaccines to Britain to safeguard scarce doses for its own citizens facing a third wave of the pandemic that would jeopardize plans to restart travel this summer.

“We are in the crisis of the century,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

“We see the crest of a third wave forming in member states, and we know that we need to accelerate the vaccination rates.”

She spoke as six EU countries complained to Brussels about reduced deliveries that are hampering the bloc’s already troubled inoculation campaign struggling amid reduced deliveries by AstraZeneca.

We are in the crisis of the century. We see the crest of a third wave forming in member states, and we know that we need to accelerate the vaccination rates.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of European Commission

Von der Leyen said EU leaders should consider additional measures to secure vaccine supplies when they meet next week, including the potential use of emergency legal powers that would allow them to effectively seize control of production and distribution.

On Tuesday, the Commission proposed to accelerate the delivery of ten million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for the second quarter of 2021. The delivery was originally scheduled for the third and fourth quarters of this year.

Von der Leyen stressed that the next quarter was critical for the rollout of vaccination strategies in the EU member states. This accelerated delivery will bring the total supply of Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccines to the EU to over 200 million doses in the next quarter.

EU governments sought to put another chaotic vaccine episode behind them as the bloc’s drug regulator signaled AstraZeneca shot was safe and France and Italy hinted that they were ready to lift suspensions.

In a sign that the latest crisis could soon start to calm, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron said after talks Tuesday that they could resume using the Astra vaccine again if the European Medicines Agency advises that it’s safe.

ALSO READ: EU health ministers debate Astra shot after halting vaccine

Africa

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in Africa reached 4,051,362 as of Wednesday noon, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The death toll stood at 108,391 while the total number of recoveries reached 3,641,349, the Africa CDC said.

Russia

Russia registered 8,998 new coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours, down from 9,393 the day before, bringing the nationwide tally to 4,418,436, the country's COVID-19 response center said Wednesday.

Another 427 newly reported deaths took the overall toll to 93,364, the center said in a statement.

The number of recoveries rose by 10,755 to 4,024,975, it said.

Moscow, the country's worst-hit region, reported 1,201 cases, taking its tally to 1,004,481.

Georgia

Georgia on Wednesday reported 382 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the tally to 276,067, according to the country's center for disease control.

Data from the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health showed that 313 more patients have recovered in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of recoveries to 269,006.

Meanwhile, seven people died in the last 24 hours, raising the death toll to 3,665.

Iceland

Iceland will this week open its borders to all visitors who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 without mandatory testing or quarantine, as it hopes more tourists will help revive its coronavirus-hit economy.

Iceland had until now allowed vaccinated visitors from European Union countries to enter without restrictions, but from March 18 this exemption will apply to citizens outside the Schengen area, including Britain and the United States, according to a statement.

Visitors must present proof of vaccination with a vaccine that has been certified by the European Medicines Agency

France

The French government will impose tougher restrictions for some regions including Paris from this weekend to counter the accelerating spread of COVID-19 infections, spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday after a cabinet meeting.

The announcement paves the way for new curbs in the greater Paris region, where intensive care wards are full and the hospital system is buckling with an incident rate of more than 400 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Attal said the new measures for Paris could include some form of confinement. The new restrictions will be announced by the prime minister on Thursday. They will not include school closures, Attal said.

Attal also said that France would swiftly resume the AstraZeneca vaccination campaign if the European Medicines Agency recommends it on Thursday.

The virus situation is worsening in the greater Paris region where hospitals are under immense strain, Director General of the AP-HP Paris hospitals organization Martin Hirsch said earlier Wednesday.

A woman wearing a protective mask walks past the closed iconic brasserie Les Deux Magots decorated with teddy bears sitting at tables after public spaces including cafes and bars were closed by the authorities to curb the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, in Paris on March 15, 2021. (LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP)

France has entered "a form of third wave (of the coronavirus pandemic) characterized by numerous virus variants," Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Tuesday, stressing that his government still considers vaccination a top priority of its strategy to stem the spread of the virus.

"The outbreak is going into extra time," he told a hearing at the National Assembly, the lower house of France's Parliament, which observed a moment of silence in memory of the 90,000-plus victims of the pandemic one year after the first national lockdown.

Mass vaccination, Castex said, "will allow us to get out of (the lockdown)."

As of Tuesday, 5,295,735 people had received at least one vaccine dose, according to the health authorities.

Castex said he intends to get an AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine once European health authorities confirm the vaccine is safe.

Global tally

The number of coronavirus cases recorded worldwide surpassed 120.6 million while the global death toll topped 2.67 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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Johnson & Johnson

Catalent Inc plans to expand its COVID-19 vaccine production in Europe that will enable it to make more doses of Johnson & Johnson's shot, the Wall Street Journal reported here on Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

The contract drug manufacturer will bring online a second J&J vaccine production line at its plant in Anagni, Italy, during the fourth quarter, the Journal reported.

Austria

The number of COVID-19 infections in Austria exceeded 500,000, after 3,239 new cases were reported in the past 24 hours, the highest daily spike this year, according to the Austrian Interior Ministry.

There were 1,851 people receiving hospital treatment, 400 of whom were in intensive care, data showed.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told journalists at a video conference on Wednesday that his country would receive a share of 400,000 doses out of the 10 million additional doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine allocated for the European Union (EU), meaning that "every Austrian can be offered a coronavirus vaccination by the end of June”.

So far, a total of 8,956 people have died from COVID-19 in Austria.

Spain

The Spanish Ministry of Health said on Wednesday that it wa investigating three cases of blood clots, one of which was fatal, among people who had been given the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The news came two days after Spain joined other European nations in suspending the use of the vaccine while further investigations were being carried out.

The person who died was reported to be a 43-year-old teacher from the town of Marbella in southern Spain.

The three cases were registered by the Spanish system of Pharmacovigilance, which noted that the cases have to be looked at in the "context that 975,661 people have been vaccinated in Spain using the AstraZeneca vaccine."

The Spanish Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices is currently carrying out "an exhaustive investigation to know whether there is a temporal or causal relationship between the use of the vaccine" and the blood clotting incidents.

Senegal

Senegal has set up a pharmacovigilance system to monitor people who have received their first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19, Health Minister Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr said Wednesday.

Speaking to Senegalese News Agency, Sarr said the system would be able to identify this vaccine's side effects and to ensure "in a very scientific, very clear and rigorous way" the measures to be adopted whenever necessary.

"For now, Senegal is continuing its vaccination campaign with Sinopharm and AstraZeneca," Sarr said.

Norway

Norway is experiencing a third wave of coronavirus infections, Health Minister Bent Hoeie said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, it is still too early to say if there is a link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and three cases of bleeding, blood clots and low levels of platelets reported in Norway, the country’s health authorities said on Wednesday.

“Based on the information we have now, we do not know whether there is a link between the serious reported conditions and the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Camilla Stoltenberg, the head of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI), told a news conference.

FHI was analysing the number of such cases in the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations to make comparisons.

Irrespective of the results of the Norwegian and European probes into possible side effects, FHI is now considering whether to continue using AstraZeneca in its national programme because of delivery delays, Stoltenberg said.

Bulgaria

The Bulgarian health ministry on Wednesday morning reported COVID-19 hospitalizations and the number of intensive-care patients hit record highs since the onset of the pandemic.

According to the ministry, there were 7,600 patients currently hospitalised across the country, and the number of those treated in intensive care has risen to 612.

The ministry said 4,374 new cases were registered in the last 24 hours, bringing the cumulative caseload to 287,568.

The death toll rose by 107 to 11,579, it added.

The ministry said a total of 345,994 vaccine doses had been administered so far. 

Hungary

The third batch of China's Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines that Hungary had purchased arrived in Budapest on Wednesday, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto confirmed on his Facebook page.

In a video posted on his page, Szijjarto said the Chinese vaccines arrived 43 days earlier than the deadline agreed upon, allowing people in the country to get vaccinated earlier.

Szijjarto warned that the pandemic was raging at "full steam”. 

Hungary on Wednesday reported 3,456 new COVID-19 cases, raising the tally to 532,578.

In the past 24 hours, a record 195 deaths were logged, raising the toll to 17,421.

Currently 10,284 patients were being treated in hospitals, according to figures from the government's coronavirus information website. A total of 359,061 people have recovered.

As of Wednesday, 1,397,342 people had received at least one shot of a vaccine, while 406,746 hvae had two jabs, according to the website.  

Namibia

The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines from Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac arrived in Namibia on Tuesday afternoon.

Receiving the vaccines at the Hosea Kutako International Airport, Namibian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah said the vaccines' arrival gives hope to the country's fight against the coronavirus.

Namibia will launch its COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Friday after receiving the first batch of Sinopharm vaccine from China, Minister of Health Kalumbi Shangula said earlier in the day.

Shangula said the vaccination campaign will kick start under phase one from March 19 to April 16, 2021 in selected districts.

The initial vaccination will be done in Windhoek, Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, which have been the most affected areas in the pandemic.

UK

Britain is reviewing the idea of vaccine certificates to allow access to travel, hospitality and entertainment and discussing the best way to proceed in terms of fairness, said business minister Kwarsi Kwarteng.

P&O Cruises said on Tuesday that it would only accept as passengers those who have had both doses of the vaccine for its trips around the UK this summer, sparking a fresh debate on the issue.

When asked about the fairness of companies requiring proof of vaccination to grant entry and what the government’s stance was on the matter, Kwarteng said it was under review.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is getting his coronavirus vaccination “very shortly” – and it “will certainly be Oxford-AstraZeneca I’ll be having”

Britain’s Prince Charles on Wednesday criticized those lobbying against coronavirus vaccines, saying they can “protect and liberate” some of society’s most vulnerable members.

In a wide-ranging article for the Future Healthcare Journal in which he called for an integrated approach to healthcare, the heir to the throne also took a swipe at those speaking out against COVID-19 shots.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is getting his coronavirus vaccination “very shortly” – and it “will certainly be Oxford-AstraZeneca I’ll be having”.

Johnson, 56, spoke in Parliament on Wednesday after a number of European countries suspended use of the vaccine due to concerns over blood clots. The government has insisted the Astra shot is safe and effective and urged the public to take it.

Another 5,294 people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 4,268,821, according to official figures released Tuesday.

The country also reported another 110 coronavirus-related deaths. The total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Britain now stands at 125,690. These figures only include the deaths of people who died within 28 days of their first positive test.

More than 24.8 million people in Britain have been given the first jab of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the latest official figures.

US

Dangerous coronavirus variants continue to threaten progress the US has made in reducing cases and immunizing the population, according to the nation’s top infectious disease doctor.

“While we are cautiously optimistic about the future, we know that many challenges remain,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in prepared remarks ahead of a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

Nearly 53,000 new child COVID-19 cases were reported last week in the United States, marking the eighth consecutive week with a decline in these new cases, according to the latest report of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Children's Hospital Association.

A total of 3,284,531 child COVID-19 cases had been reported across the country as of March 11, and children represented 13.2 percent of all confirmed cases, according to the report.

Joe Biden said on Tuesday the United States is in talks with several countries about who will get any extra doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’re talking with several countries already,” Biden told reporters as he left the White House to promote his coronavirus stimulus package in Pennsylvania. “I’ll let you know that very shortly.”

Donald Trump said he would urge his supporters and others wary of the coronavirus vaccine to get it, while also saying that personal freedoms must be respected.

“I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it, and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly,” Trump said in a telephone interview with Fox News on Tuesday night.

The Netherlands

The number of new coronavirus infections in the Netherlands increased by 24 percent in the week through Tuesday, the biggest weekly jump since mid-December, Dutch health authorities said.

A total 39,527 new cases were confirmed in the country of 17 million people in the past week, taking the total number of COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic to almost 1.2 million, with 16,119 related deaths.

Sweden

Sweden’s government admitted it may have to move its vaccine target of all citizens over the age of 18 being offered a shot by June 30, newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported.

“If we get further delivery delays and if that isn’t filled up with other vaccines, then we will be forced to move it forward,” said Lena Hallengren, Minister for Health & Social Affairs. Like others, the country suspended the use of AstraZeneca’s shot while awaiting the outcome of a review into possible side effects by the European Medicines Agency.

Canada

Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) announced on Tuesday that the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is both safe and effective for people over age 65.

The committee said real-world evidence has demonstrated that the vaccine is safe and effective in older people, particularly against severe illness from COVID-19 and hospitalization.

The announcement is different from a recommendation made by the NACI itself on March 1, when its panel of vaccine experts said AstraZeneca hadn't included enough people over the age of 65 in its clinical trials.

Greece

The Greek authorities will continue to use AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine in the country as originally scheduled, the national news agency AMNA reported on Tuesday.

Greece's National Vaccination Committee examined the issue after reports of blood clotting in people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot. Numerous European countries have suspended the use of the AstraZeneca jab as a "precautionary measure."

The Greek authorities have decided to continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing the recommendations of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Belgium 

 A total of 2,112 patients in Belgium are currently in hospital with COVID-19, including 503 in intensive care, despite the vaccination campaign reaching new heights.

"This situation is linked to a constant increase in the number of infections in all provinces and in almost all age groups," Yves Van Laethem, interfederal spokesperson for the fight against the coronavirus, said here on Tuesday.

Between March 9 and March 15, an average 167 hospitalized patients per day were reported by Sciensano, the federal institute for public health. This is a 14 percent increase compared to last week.

Germany

Germany registered 5,480 new COVID-19 infections within one day, around 1,230 more than one week ago, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said on Tuesday.

The incidence rate of reported COVID-19 cases in the past seven days per 100,000 citizens continued to rise to 83.7, according to the federal government agency for disease control and prevention.

Although Germany remains in a COVID-19 lockdown until at least March 28, the country has started gradual relaxations of health measures based on the seven-day incidence rate.

Lithuania 

Lithuania has temporarily halted the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, the country's Ministry of Health said on Tuesday.

The decision has been made following a recommendation from the State Medicines Control Agency, said Health Minister Arunas Dulkys at a news conference.

He described it as "a precaution pending the final conclusions of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on the safety of the vaccine."

He also said that both EMA and the World Health Organization say that there is no evidence that the vaccine could cause blood clots.

Portugal 

In an attempt to assuage concerns among those who had received the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on Tuesday that the country's decision to suspend the jab was "just for precaution."

"People need to understand what is happening: these suspensions are only provisional. The World Health Organization is doing a review of the data, the European Medicines Agency will comment until the end of the week," he said.

Speaking to journalists, Costa recalled that he himself had been given the first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine and that he "looks forward to the second dose," which he will receive in May.

Cuba 

Cuba registered on Tuesday 792 COVID-19 infections in 24 hours, for a total of 62,998 cases, as well as three more deaths, bringing the total to 376, the Public Health Ministry said.

The ministry's national director of hygiene and epidemiology Francisco Duran said in his daily report that of the total number of daily infections reported, 779 were from community transmission.

Havana recorded 437 infections in the same period, the highest number in the country, as it continues to be the epicenter of the pandemic.

Ecuador 

Ecuador recorded 356 COVID-19 infections in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of cases to 302,854, along with another 17 deaths for a total of 11,467, the Public Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

Of the country's 24 provinces, 11 have been most affected by the virus, led by Pichincha, with 104,508 cases.

Currently, 60.7 percent of infected people are between 20 and 49 years old, while adults over 65 account for 12.8 percent.

Morocco 

Morocco registered 526 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, taking the total tally in the North African country to 489,622, the health ministry said in a statement.

The total number of recoveries from COVID-19 in Morocco increased to 476,727 after 601 new ones were added.

The death toll rose to 8,737 with four new fatalities during the last 24 hours, while 391 people are in intensive care units.

Tunisia

Tunisian Health Ministry on Tuesday reported 549 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total number of cases in the North African country to 242,673.

The death toll from the virus rose by 25 to 8,429, the ministry said in a statement.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients reached 1,037, including 276 in intensive care units, while the total number of recoveries reached 209,755, it added.

Brazil

Brazil on Tuesday reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths just as the country’s new health minister nominee pledged to continue the controversial policies of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the severity of the disease.

Brazil registered 2,841 COVID-19 deaths in the last 24 hours, a new record daily increase, raising the death toll to 282,127, the Ministry of Health said Tuesday.

The ministry also reported 83,926 new cases, bringing the national count to 11,603,535.

Currently, the country has an average of 134.3 deaths and 5,521 cases of infection per 100,000 inhabitants, said the ministry.

Chile

Chile on Tuesday marked the milestone of having vaccinated more than 5 million people against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) since a mass vaccination campaign was launched Feb. 3, the Ministry of Health said.

Some 5,011,517 people have been inoculated with at least one dose, including 2,136,079 people who have already gotten their second jab, the ministry said.

"This achievement is a merit and belongs to all Chileans," Chile's President Sebastian Pinera said at a press conference, after meeting with representatives of the National Immunization Plan to celebrate reaching the goal.

Nicaragua 

Nicaragua received a first batch of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses, health authorities said on Tuesday, touting the inoculations donated through the World Health Organization’s global vaccine-sharing COVAX program.

Officials with the World Health Organization’s Americas branch PAHO said COVAX had donated 135,000 doses and that Nicaragua would receive more shots through the COVAX mechanism at the end of March, but did not specify how many.

Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo said earlier on Tuesday the COVAX program had provided 137,000 doses.