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Criticism Grows As Countries In Europe Suspend The Use Of The AstraZeneca Vaccine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Europe now, where multiple countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, have now suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 - this after dozens of people experienced blood clots days after receiving the shot, which so far has been given to 17 million people in Europe. But doctors and health experts are criticizing the suspension, saying there's no evidence of a link between blood clots and the vaccine and that the benefits far outweigh the risks. NPR's Rob Schmitz is with us from Berlin.

Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I'm trying to remember. It was just last week that news broke that Denmark had suspended the vaccine. They were the first. They were on their own. And now it's like country after country after country after country.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, it's been a cascade. And all of this sort of started last week. These reports trickled in that a handful of those who'd received the vaccine had developed blood clots, brain hemorrhaging, some of them fatal. Here in Germany, these reports worried some health authorities. And yesterday, Health Minister Jens Spahn announced that Germany would suspend the AstraZeneca vaccine until it was assured that it was safe. France, Italy and Spain followed suit yesterday. The European Medicines Agency is now looking into these reports.

KELLY: Looking into them - it's trying to figure out what links there may or may not be between blood clotting and platelet issues and this vaccine. But I gather their advice so far is that people should keep receiving this vaccine.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, they're sticking with that message as they investigate these blood clot cases this week. In a press conference today, the agency's executive director, Emer Cooke, said the situation is not unexpected. When you vaccinate millions of people, it's inevitable that you have rare and serious effects that occur after the vaccination in some people. Here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

EMER COOKE: Our position is that the benefits continue to outweigh the risks. But this is a serious concern, and it does need serious and detailed scientific evaluation.

SCHMITZ: And Mary Louise, Cooke's agency is looking into whether this vaccine is causing these clots and will announce the result of its investigation on Thursday.

KELLY: But does - it sounds as though Europe's medical community is not aligned with the decision being made by a whole lot of governments in Europe to suspend the vaccine.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, there's a lot of anger here among health officials in Germany and throughout Europe today. You know, as far as we know, there are only dozens of cases of blood clotting among at least 17 million people who have received this vaccine. And this incidence rate is no higher than what occurs in the general public. And in fact, according to the European Medicines Agency, it's likely lower among those who got the AstraZeneca vaccine. So this decision by several EU countries to suspend this vaccine is both baffling and frustrating.

KELLY: And just to clarify, the AstraZeneca vaccine is not being administered here in the U.S. This is not one of the ones...

SCHMITZ: Right.

KELLY: ...That Americans are getting. But it's the main one that Europeans have been getting.

SCHMITZ: It's a big one the Europeans are getting. You know, when the EU ordered vaccines last year, it bet big on the AstraZeneca vaccine, partly because it was the most affordable one out there by a long shot. So it ordered hundreds of millions of doses of this vaccine. And the problem started in January when AstraZeneca admitted it wasn't going to be able to deliver on these early orders for the EU. Now with countries suspending the vaccine, this is going to slow down this incredibly slow vaccine rollout in Europe even more. And people here are just fed up with all of this.

And here in Germany, we're seeing political fallout. Two German states held their elections over the weekend, and the center-right Christian Democrats, who, through Chancellor Angela Merkel, help govern Germany at the moment, suffered big losses due to what many feel is their mismanagement of this vaccine rollout.

KELLY: I can imagine the frustration. NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin.

Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF HVOB SONG, "GHOST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.