Paris: Governments across Europe raced Friday to lift suspensions on AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine and reassure an exhausted and anxious public that it was safe amid a new wave of infections that led many countries to reimpose harsh restrictions on movement and businesses.
German officials warned that plans to ease restrictions by Easter would have to be put on hold and said that more measures might be needed in the weeks ahead. Paris was one of many cities across France where people were essentially ordered to stay at home. Italy entered its third national lockdown Monday, and Poland will put in place its own lockdown Saturday.
The rapid moves to tighten what were already relatively stringent restrictions came as nearly every country in Europe that had halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine - including France, Germany, Italy and Spain - said they would start using it again.
But the brief halt in the use of the vaccine underscored the slow pace of mass inoculation campaigns, which led officials to warn that the only way to control the virus was to impose restrictions.
One year into the pandemic, the routine is by now exasperatingly familiar in Europe.
Cases of infection begin to spike. Restrictions are tightened and society grinds to a halt, but by the time people are once again essentially confined to their homes, hospitals are filled. Death follows.
Supposed to be different
Across all of Europe, the official death toll surged past 900,000 last week, according to the World Health Organisation. But this spring, it was supposed to be different.
Vaccines are rolling out, albeit at a halting pace. They are effective. They can stop serious illness and death. But for the vast majority of people in Europe, and around the world, they are agonisingly out of reach.
The latest outbreaks are a stark reminder that not enough people have been inoculated to seriously blunt the impact of a new wave of infection spreading across the continent, so governments are once again being forced to tighten already difficult restrictions on businesses and social interactions.
“There are not yet enough vaccine doses in Europe to stop the third wave by vaccination alone,” Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said Friday. “Even if the deliveries from EU orders come reliably, it will still take a few weeks until the risk groups are fully vaccinated.”
The mass vaccination efforts across the European Union were thrown into deeper turmoil this week as more than a dozen countries suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine while reports of a possible link to a small number of cases of blood clots and abnormal bleeding were investigated.
On Thursday, the bloc’s medical regulator, the European Medicines Agency, said that its review came to the firm conclusion that the vaccine was “safe and effective.” Although it will continue to watch for any connections to the disorders, the agency noted that any threat would be very small, and the shots will prevent vastly more deaths than they might cause.
Political leaders rushed to try to undo any damage to the public’s trust and faith in AstraZeneca and vaccines more broadly - with a number of them rolling up their sleeves and getting the shots themselves to drive the point home.
In France, where vaccine scepticism runs deep, Jean Castex, the country’s 55-year-old prime minister, flashed a thumbs up at television cameras after getting his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine at a military hospital in the Val-de-Marne area, southeast of Paris.
Although the French resumed administering the vaccine, the top health regulator recommended it only for people 55 and older since the blood disorders were found in people younger than that. It said that for now, other vaccines should be used for younger people.
Lithuania also resumed using AstraZeneca vaccines Friday, and the nation’s president, prime minister and health minister were set to get shots Monday.
While faith in AstraZeneca remains high in Britain, where the vaccine was developed in partnership with researchers at Oxford University, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to get a shot Friday as he sought to ease the minds of millions in the country who had already received it.
Still, some countries said they needed more time to investigate, including Sweden, Denmark and Norway.
In Norway, the caution was driven by preliminary findings from medical experts there and in Germany that suggested they might have found a link between the vaccine and the extremely rare blood disorders. The German experts said the sinus or cerebral vein thrombosis suffered by 13 Germans days after receiving the vaccine was caused by an immune system reaction they believe could be tied to the shot. They did not release detailed data, but plan to submit their findings to The Lancet.
AstraZeneca did not immediately comment on the assertions Friday.
Dr. James Bussel, an expert on platelet disorders and a professor emeritus at Weill Cornell Medicine, said the occurrence of abnormal clotting and low platelets in people under 50 is uncommon. He noted that researchers in Europe had identified antibodies produced by the immune system - possibly in a highly unusual response to the vaccine - that may have activated the platelets and started a cascade of abnormal clotting and bleeding.
Researchers in both Germany and Norway will continue investigating and in Germany, where the vaccine is again being administered, doctors are now warning anyone receiving an AstraZeneca shot to see a doctor immediately if they have headaches, dizziness or blurred vision more than three days afterward. They said the problems could very likely be treated if caught in time.
And on Friday, Chancellor Angela Merkel joined other European leaders in trying to reassure the public, telling reporters she would have no qualms about getting an AstraZeneca shot, but was waiting for her turn to come up, according to Germany’s prioritisation system.
But the challenge for leaders across much of Europe is much deeper than restoring faith in one vaccine. They must now find a way to deliver more vaccines to the people that need them most at a time when the virus is once again claiming some 2,000 lives a day.
“The number of people dying from COVID-19 in Europe is higher now than it was this time last year,” said Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s European director. “It is in Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States where case incidence, hospitalisations and deaths are now among the highest in the world.”
Infections are rising across the continent.
France reported nearly 40,000 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, according to a New York Times database - the highest number since November, when a second wave of infection forced the entire country into lockdown.
On Friday, authorities ordered the lockdown of Paris once again, one of many places in the country where a weary public was told the now familiar refrain: The situation is getting worse and desperate action must be taken to keep it from deteriorating even further.
With less than 10 per cent of the population having received even one dose of vaccine, Bruno Riou, the head of the crisis center for Paris public hospitals, said a lockdown was the only remaining option.
“I hear a lot of people saying that a week without a lockdown is a week that’s gained,” Riou said. “For me, it’s a week that’s lost.”
Across Europe more broadly, promises to ease restrictions by Easter are now being reversed. In Germany, where cases are rising rapidly, Merkel warned that the country was facing the possibility of a stricter lockdown, and that a decision would be made on Monday.
She said that a planned easing of restrictions in some states, including opening stores and allowing more people to meet, may have to be postponed even as Germans look forward to their Easter vacations.