Video report by ITV News Reporter Alex Forrest Whiting
German health officials have agreed to restrict the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in people under 60, amid fresh concern over unusual blood clots reported in a tiny number of those who received the shots.
It follows recommendations by Germany’s independent vaccine expert panel after the country’s medical regulator released new data showing a rise in reported cases of an unusual form of blood clot in the head — known as sinus vein thrombosis — in recent recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
But out of 2.7 million people who received the jab in Germany, only 31 blood clots have been reported.
Nine of the people died and all but two of the cases involved women, who were aged 20 to 63, the Paul Ehrlich Institute said.
Health Minister Jens Spahn and state officials agreed unanimously to only give the vaccine to people aged 60 or older, unless they belong to a high-risk category for serious illness from Covid-19 and have agreed with their doctor to take the vaccine despite the small risk of a serious side-effect.
The European Medicines Agency said at the time that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks, but it could not rule out a link between the shot and some unusual kinds of clots, and recommended adding a warning about possible rare side-effects.
The news is a further blow to the vaccine, which is critical to Europe’s immunisation campaign and a linchpin in the global strategy to get shots to poorer countries.
It comes less than two weeks after the EU drug regulator said the vaccine does not increase the overall incidence of blood clots following a similar scare.
ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan on Germany's decision to halt the AstraZeneca vaccine
Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "Trust arises from the knowledge that every suspicion, every individual case will be investigated.
"The Federal and State government stand behind this.
"The new rules for AZ of course also have consequences for the organisation of the vaccination campaign in the near future."
The decision came as, on Tuesday, new rules meant all passengers flying into Germany must have a negative coronavirus test in regulations put in place to battle a third wave.
But Germany's federal system means that each leader of the country's 16 states is free to decide which rules to put in place.
For instance, although they have collectively agreed for tougher restrictions in areas where coronavirus case numbers are rising - the so-called 'emergency brake' - that doesn't appear in places like Berlin.
However, several German regions — including the capital Berlin and the country’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia — had already suspended use of the shots in younger people earlier on Tuesday.
In a statement ahead of the announcement, AstraZeneca said tens of millions of people worldwide have received its vaccines, and noted that the EU regulator and the World Health Organisation concluded that the benefits of the shot outweigh the risks.
The company said it would continue to work with German authorities to address any questions they might have, while also analysing its own records to understand whether the rare blood clots reported occur more commonly “than would be expected naturally in a population of millions of people”.
The suspensions come as Germany, along with other European countries, is scrambling to ramp up its vaccine programme, which lags far behind those in Britain and the United States.
By Monday, some 13.2 million people in the country had received at least one dose of vaccine, while nearly four million had received both shots.
Use of the AstraZeneca vaccine was temporarily halted in several European countries earlier this month over concerns about the rare blood clots.
After a review by medical experts at the European Medicines Agency, most European Union countries, including Germany, resumed use of the vaccine on March 19.
On Monday, Canada suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in people under 55, citing new concerning data from Europe.
Germany’s decision is likely to affect appointments made by tens of thousands of teachers and people with pre-existing conditions who received invitations to get vaccinated in Berlin in recent days.
Appointments for the AstraZeneca shot were available sooner than ones for the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
Scientists at the University of Greifswald, Germany, this week published the results of their investigation into the possible causes of the blood clots, saying the condition is similar to a side-effect seen in some patients who receive the blood thinning medication heparin.
The study, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, does not provide a conclusive explanation for why some people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot develop the rare blood clots.