WHO backs AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine and plays down risks

The UN health agency says there is no causal link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots and is reviewing data.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
The World Health Organization aligned with the EU regulator in recommending the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine [File: Christopher Black/World Health Organization/AFP]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has backed the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after some European countries paused their rollouts following reports of the formation of blood clots in several recipients.

“More than 335 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally so far, and no deaths have been found to have been caused by COVID-19 vaccines,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday during an online news briefing.

At least five European countries, including Denmark, Norway and Iceland, have suspended the use of a specific batch of the AstraZeneca vaccine after a Danish woman died due to the formation of blood clots after inoculation. Italy’s drug regulator said it halted the use of a separate batch after two people died.

However, the European Medicine Agency stressed that the jabs’ benefits still outweighed their risks and the WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said on Friday that no causal link had been established between the vaccine and clotting.

“As of now we are confident that we should go ahead,” she said, referring to the use of the AstraZeneca jab.

The WHO also said a panel of experts was investigating the latest reports and said any changes to its current recommendations will be communicated immediately to the public.

Thailand and the Republic of the Congo were the first non-European countries to pause the distribution of the shot on Friday.

Congo received 1.7 million AstraZeneca doses via the global COVAX vaccine-sharing programme on March 2, but is yet to start its inoculation campaign.

WHO’s Assistant Director-General Mariangela Simao said the AstraZeneca batches now under scrutiny were manufactured in Europe, while the drugmaker’s vaccines destined to COVAX were being produced by manufacturers in India and South Korea.

J&J jab granted emergency approval

Separately on Friday, the WHO granted an emergency use listing for the vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson, meaning the one-dose shot can now theoretically be used as part of the international COVAX effort to distribute vaccines globally, including to poor countries without any supplies.

The emergency use listing comes a day after the European Medicines Agency recommended the shot be given the green light across the 27-country European Union.

A massive study that spanned three continents found the J&J vaccine was 85 percent effective in protecting against severe illness, hospitalisations and death. That protection remained strong even in countries like South Africa where new coronavirus variants have been identified that appear to be less susceptible to other licensed vaccines, including the one made by AstraZeneca.

COVAX previously announced it had an initial agreement with J&J to provide 500 million doses, but that is not legally binding.

“We’re hoping by at least July that we have access to doses that we can be rolling out, if not even earlier,” Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the WHO chief, said on Friday.

He added that officials were particularly keen to get J&J doses to countries because it requires only one dose and can be stored at regular refrigerator temperatures.

J&J has faced production delays in the US and Europe but has recently signed agreements with rival pharmaceuticals who will help make their vaccine.

In February, Sanofi Pasteur said it would be able to make about 12 million doses of the J&J vaccine at one of its French production sites once the shot is cleared by the EMA. It is aiming to make one billion doses this year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies