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VACCINE

Norway extends pause of AstraZeneca vaccine until April 15th

Norway on Friday extended a suspension of the use of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine until April 15th, with health officials saying they needed more time to investigate a potential link to severe blood clotting.

Norway extends pause of AstraZeneca vaccine until April 15th
Photo: Fred TANNEAU / AFP

“It is a difficult but correct decision to extend the pause for the AstraZeneca vaccine. We believe it is necessary to carry out more investigations into these cases,” Geir Bukholm, Director of the Division of Infection Control at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH), said in a statement.

The vaccine was originally suspended on March 11th following reports of suspected serious side effects. 

In the Nordic country, several healthcare workers under the age of 55 have suffered symptoms including blood clots, bleeding and a drop in blood platelets after receiving the AstraZeneca jab.

Four deaths have been reported, with three from combinations of these complications and one from a brain haemorrhage.

No link has been established with the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker’s vaccine, although a Norwegian medical team said it saw these rare but serious cases as the result of a “powerful immune response” triggered by the serum.

EU drugs regulator EMA last week said the vaccine was “safe and effective” and not linked to a higher risk of blood clots, but could not “rule out definitively” its role in the rare clotting disorder.

The World Health Organization has also urged countries to continue using the vaccine, arguing the benefits outweigh any potential risks.

READ ALSO: Norwegian experts conclude ‘strong immune response’ from AstraZeneca vaccine linked to blood clots

“The most important thing is to determine whether there is a causal link between the vaccination and these very serious side effects, as we suspect,” NIPH director Camilla Stoltenberg told public broadcaster NRK radio.

The deputy leader of the Norwegian Nurses Association (Sykepleierforbundet), Kai Øivind Brenden, told broadcaster NRK that he is satisfied that the NIPH has decided to extend the suspension.

“We think it is a wise decision, as long as there is so much uncertainty, we think it is wise (to take the time) to make the necessary risk assessments,” Brenden said. 

Among the first to suspend AstraZeneca’s vaccine, the Nordic countries are now adopting different strategies.

While Denmark on Thursday announced a three-week extension of the pause to allow time for a closer look at possible side effects of the vaccine, Finland, Iceland and Sweden are restarting their rollouts, although only for older people.

In a statement released on its website, NIPH said it wanted to get more information surrounding the following questions:

  • Is there an increased incidence of the combination of blood clots, bleeding and low platelet counts among those who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine compared to those that haven’t?
  • If so, what is the reason for such a connection?
  • Are there any factors in the patients that may have contributed to the condition such as age, gender, or other underlying diseases/conditions?

Prime Minister Erna Solberg told news wire NTB that she believes that valuable information can be gained from the United Kingdom in regard to the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“The UK is the country that has used AstraZeneca the most in the largest groups and must have a basis to be able to say something about this,” Solberg said. 

So far 120,000 people in Norway have been vaccinated with AstraZeneca.

The suspension is expected to delay the Norwegian vaccination programme by one to two weeks, NIPH said, and people who have already received a first dose of the vaccine would not be offered a second injection at this stage.

The health authority said that data from United Kingdom suggested that the first does should provide good protection against a severe disease course.

In the NIPH’s best case scenario plan it had hoped to have everyone over the age vaccinated by June. 

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COVID-19

Covid deaths in Sweden ‘set to rise in coming weeks’

The Public Health Agency of Sweden has warned that the number of weekly Covid deaths is set to rise, after the number of people testing positive for the virus rose for the sixth week running.

Covid deaths in Sweden 'set to rise in coming weeks'

According to the agency, an average of 27 people have died with or from the virus a week over the past three weeks. 

“According to our analyses, the number who died in week 27 (July 4th-July 11th), is more than died in week 26 and we expect this to continue to grow,” the agency wrote in a report issued on Thursday. 

In the week ending July 17th (week 28), 4,700 new cases of Covid-19 were registered, a 22 percent rise on the previous week. 

“We are seeing rising infection levels of Covid-19 which means that there will be more people admitted to hospital, and even more who die with Covid-19,”  said Anneli Carlander, a unit chief at the agency. “The levels we are seeing now are higher than they were last summer, but we haven’t reached the same level we saw last winter when omicron was spreading for the first time.” 

While 27 deaths a week with for from Covid-19 is a rise on the low levels seen this spring, it is well below the peak death rate Sweden saw in April 2020, when more than 100 people were dying a day. 

The number of Covid deaths recorded each week this summer. Source. Public Health Agency of Sweden
A graph of Covid deaths per day since the start of the pandemic shows that the current death rate, while alarming, remains low. Photo: Public Health Agency of Sweden

Carlander said that cases were rising among those in sheltered accommodation for the elderly, and also elderly people given support in their own homes, groups which are recommended to get tested for the virus if they display symptoms. The infection rate among those given support in their homes has risen 40 percent on last week. 

This week there were also 12 new patients admitted to intensive care units with Covid-19 in Sweden’s hospitals.  

The increase has come due to the new BA.5 variant of omicron, which is better able to infect people who have been vaccinated or already fallen ill with Covid-19. Vaccination or a past infection does, however, give protection against serious illness and death. 

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