The growing list of countries suspending use of the AstraZeneca vaccine may be doing much more harm than good, experts say

Marianne Guenot
·4 min read
France vaccine AstraZeneca box
A box containing vials of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images
  • AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine has been suspended in 16 countries.

  • The countries suspending the shots say they are doing so as a precaution.

  • Experts say that a stop-start approach is undermining confidence while COVID-19 is still spreading.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Decisions by at least 16 countries to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine is "baffling," "reckless," and "political," experts have said.

A growing list of nations has pulled the shot from use, with most of the biggest nations in Europe deciding to stop on Tuesday.

The decisions came after countries said they were investigating whether there is a link between the vaccine and reports of blood clots.

The European Medicines Agency, the World Health Organization, and AstraZeneca have insisted that there is no evidence for such a connection. AstraZeneca said its data showed that such clots are occurring less in vaccinated groups than in the general population.

The countries suspending the vaccine generally defended the move as an example of extreme caution, designed to maximize confidence in the shot.

But, as the list of countries grew longer, some experts said that the suspensions are more likely to undermine confidence. And while the programs are paused, the virus is still infecting people.

Here is the list of countries that have suspended the vaccine as of 7 a.m. ET:

  • Sweden

  • Slovenia

  • Latvia

  • Spain

  • Luxembourg

  • Indonesia

  • The Netherlands

  • Ireland

  • Denmark

  • Norway

  • Iceland

  • Bulgaria

  • Germany

  • France

  • Italy

  • Democratic Republic of Congo

Halting the vaccine rollout is "baffling," said Dr. Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton.

Speaking to the Science Media Centre on Monday, Head said that data suggested that the number of blood clots in the vaccinated population was the same as, or even lower than, in the general population.

"Halting a vaccine roll out during a pandemic has consequences. This results in delays in protecting people, and the potential for increased vaccine hesitancy," he said.

Also speaking to the SMC, Dr. Stephen Griffin of the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds called the suspensions "probably not proportionate."

He said they were "bound to fuel hesitancy, or more extreme anti-vaccine sentiment."

AstraZeneca has said that there were fewer events of reported blood clots in the vaccinated population than in the general population.

Countries that have suspended the vaccine defended their decision.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the decision was taken "as a precaution" until the EMA gives extra assurance.

Germany's Health Ministry said on Monday that its decision to suspend the vaccine was "purely precautionary." German health officials said there was a "conspicuous accumulation" of very rare cases of blood clots in the brain.

Responding to Germany's suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccination, prominent German virologist and politician Karl Lauterbach said on Monday in a tweet, "Based on the data available, I consider this to be a mistake."

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Ireland's deputy chief medical officer said on Sunday that suspending the vaccine may be an overreaction, RTE reported.

Political reasoning

"I think it has gotten very political," Jeffrey Lazarus, a researcher for the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, told Al Jazeera English on Monday.

"Countries are starting to fear that if causality is determined at some point and they were the country that continued to vaccinate, that would be problematic for themselves," Lazarus said.

Once a country has decided to suspend a vaccine because of safety concerns, "it is very difficult for others not to," said Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in a Monday email to Insider.

Nicola Magrini, the director general of Italy's medicines authority, told Italian newspaper la Repubblica in an interview Reuters reported on Tuesday that "the choice is a political one."

Europe is in a perfect storm of rising COVID-19 cases, lagging vaccine rollout, and population mistrust against the AstraZeneca vaccine.

"We do need to consider the real harm from delays in immunization campaigns at a time when the incidence of COVID is still increasing in several European counties when deciding whether or not to pause vaccination campaigns," Griffin, the academic in Leeds, said on Monday.

There is no "better way to play into the hands of antivaxxers than to spread fear & mistrust" by "unilaterally suspending" the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Samy Ahmar, the head of health for UK charity Save the Children, said on Tuesday.

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The Daily Mail reported on Tuesday that Sir David Spiegelhalter, a professor of statistics at Cambridge University, said, "I don't think you can consider these pauses as being cautious, they actually could be doing more harm than good."

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