Denmark, Norway and Iceland on Thursday temporarily suspended the use of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine over concerns about patients developing post-jab blood clots, as the manufacturer and Europe's medicines watchdog insisted the vaccine was safe.
Denmark was first to announce its suspension, "following reports of serious cases of blood clots" among people who had received the vaccine, the country's Health Authority said in a statement.
It stressed the move was precautionary, and that "it has not been determined, at the time being, that there is a link between the vaccine and the blood clots".
As of March 9, 22 cases of blood clots had been reported among more than three million people vaccinated in the European Economic Area, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said.
However,Australia said on Friday it will continue to roll-out AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine as there was no evidence of a link to blood clots, despite some European countries suspending its use.
"We're getting on with the vaccine, we're getting on with the roll-out," Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told reporters in Melbourne. Australia's Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said there is no evidence to suggest the vaccine caused blood clots.
"We do take them seriously and investigate," Kelly said in an emailed statement, referring to the reports of blood clots. Australia has secured about 54 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which Health Secretary Brendan Murphy this week described as the "the workforce vaccine for Australia", with 50 million to be locally produced.
Australia's vaccination roll-out has only just begun, but the conservative government is already under pressure over the speed of the COVID-19 inoculation programme. Prime Minister Scott Morrison had said Australia would vaccinate all adults by the end of October. Instead, all adult Australians wanting a COVID-19 vaccine will receive their first dose by October, he said on Friday.
Austria announced on Monday that it had suspended the use of a batch of AstraZeneca vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of "severe blood coagulation problems" days after receiving an anti-Covid shot.
Four other European countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxemburg — have also suspended the use of vaccines from this batch, which was sent to 17 European countries and consisted of one million jabs.
Denmark however suspended the use of all of its AstraZeneca supply, as did Iceland and Norway in subsequent announcements on Thursday citing similar concerns.
On Wednesday, the EMA said a preliminary probe showed that the batch of AstraZeneca vaccines used in Austria was likely not to blame for the nurse's death.
– 'Super-cautious' –
"This is a super-cautious approach based on some isolated reports in Europe," said Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
"The risk and benefit balance is still very much in favour of the vaccine," he said.
AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish company which developed the vaccine with Oxford University, defended the safety of its product.
"The safety of the vaccine has been extensively studied in phase III clinical trials and peer-reviewed data confirms the vaccine has been generally well tolerated," a spokesman for the group told AFP.
Britain, whose widely-praised vaccine rollout has been largely underpinned by the AstraZeneca jab, also defended it as "both safe and effective".
The Danish suspension, which will be reviewed after two weeks, is expected to slow down the country's vaccination campaign.
Denmark now expects to have its entire adult population vaccinated by mid-August instead of early July, the health authority said.
"We are of course saddened by this news," said Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
Frederiksen, who has pushed for the production of more vaccines and has formed a controversial alliance with Austria and Israel to do so, defended the Danish health authorities' decision.
"There is always a risk associated with vaccines," she told reporters.
"Things have gone well in Denmark, but there are some risks linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine that need to be examined more closely. That seems to me to be the right way to proceed."
Danish Health Authority director Soren Brostrom stressed that "we have not terminated the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, we are just pausing its use".
"There is broad documentation proving that the vaccine is both safe and efficient," Brostrom said.
"But both we and the Danish Medicines Agency must act on information about possible serious side effects, both in Denmark and in other European countries."
Denmark said one person had died after receiving the vaccine. The EMA has launched an investigation into that death.
In the Scandinavian country of 5.8 million, around 25 percent of those who have received a first dose were given the AstraZeneca jab.
In total, 3.8 percent of the population has received two doses of vaccine and 13.4 percent at least one dose.