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Europe’s vaccine woes deepen as regulator probes another jab over blood clot concerns

Europe's stuttering vaccine rollout faced multiple hurdles on Friday as EU regulators said they were reviewing side effects of the Johnson & Johnson shot and France further limited its use of the AstraZeneca jab.

Europe's vaccine woes deepen as regulator probes another jab over blood clot concerns
Syringes for the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP

The US drugs regulator said it had not found a “causal” link between the J&J vaccine and blood clots, but that its probe was continuing after “a few individuals” suffered complications.

Much of the world is still in the clutches of the pandemic that has killed 2.9 million people, from Brazil, where the virus is killing more than 4,000 people a day, to Japan where the government has tightened restrictions once again.

In India, the worst-hit state of Maharashtra is running out of vaccines as the health system buckles under the weight of the contagion. Home to megacity Mumbai, Maharashtra has been placed under a curfew and weekend lockdowns.

And across Europe populations are facing some of the world’s toughest anti-virus measures, yet the epidemic refuses to be curbed.

All of France is subjected to restrictions of some form, and the country has so far doled out jabs to more than 10 million people.

But it has repeatedly changed the rules on AstraZeneca’s vaccine, first over doubts about its efficacy, then over fears that it could be linked to blood clots.

SEE ALSO: How fast is France vaccinating its population compared to other European countries?

On Friday it did so again, with Health Minister Olivier Veran saying citizens under 55 who had been given a first shot with AstraZeneca would be given a different vaccine for their second dose.

But shortly after he spoke, the World Health Organization said there was “no adequate data” to support switching Covid-19 vaccines between doses.

‘One more day’

As Europe continues to reel from constant rows over AstraZeneca’s jab, the EU’s medicine regulator announced it would be probing a second jab over bloodclot concerns.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said four “serious cases” of unusual blood clots had been reported — one of them fatal — with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses similar technology to the AstraZeneca one.

The US Food and Drug Administration said it had found no “causal” link yet between the jab and clots.

But it noted “a few individuals” in the country had clots and low levels of platelets in the blood after receiving the vaccine, and its investigation was continuing.

“Both conditions can have many different causes,” the agency said.

Johnson & Johnson released a statement saying the company was aware that “thromboembolic events… have been reported with all Covid-19 vaccines”.

But the statement added: “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established between these rare events and the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine,” referring to J&J’s European subsidiary.

Both jabs are approved for use in the European Union but the J&J vaccine has not yet been rolled out, and various EU countries have stopped or limited the use of AstraZeneca.

Supply problems

Supply problems are also hampering vaccine rollouts.

India, which is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of vaccines, is suffering its own problems with jabs in Maharashtra, home to more than 100 million people and the economic hub Mumbai.

“Most hospitals in Mumbai will exhaust their supplies by the end of the day,” Mangala Gomare, who oversees the city’s vaccination programme, told AFP Friday.

In the United States, deliveries of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are set to drop off sharply next week, US health authorities warned Friday.

Meanwhile Pfizer-BioNTech asked for authorisation to use their Covid-19 vaccine on 12-15 year olds in the US.

The companies said in a statement that they plan to make similar requests of other regulatory authorities worldwide in coming days.

In Europe, an AstraZeneca spokesman said half of its vaccine shipments to the EU will be delayed this week.

Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg said Friday she would skip a forthcoming climate meeting in Britain because countries were unable to participate on even terms.

READ MORE: Swedish region makes U-turn on new Covid-19 vaccination rules

“With the extremely inequitable vaccine distribution I will not attend the COP26 conference if the development continues as it is now,” Thunberg told AFP.

Illustrating her point, Britain has so far given at least one jab to more than 31 million people, almost half of its population, compared with poorer countries like Mexico, which has administered fewer than 10 million jabs to only seven percent of its people.

‘Everyone is not equal’

Germany’s central government has tried hard to defeat the virus through restrictions on movement and commerce, but several states have torpedoed the strategy by refusing to go along with the proposals.

Now Berlin is changing the rules to gather more centralised power.

READ MORE: Germany to tighten national coronavirus law in bid to ‘create uniform rules’

The proposed adjustments are likely to usher in night-time curfews and some school closures in especially hard-hit areas.

Japan has also tightened measures in the capital Tokyo and other areas, mostly calling for bars to close early.

On the other hand, Italy is set to end lockdown measures from next week for Lombardy, the epicentre of its coronavirus pandemic, and several other regions with improving contagion statistics.

Neighbouring Slovenia also announced it will ease coronavirus restrictions and suspend a six-month-long curfew starting Monday.

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COVID-19

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

As much of Germany lifts - or prepares to lift - the last remaining Covid-19 measures, intensive care units say Covid-19 admissions are no longer straining the system.

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

Despite a difficult winter of respiratory illnesses, intensive care units in Germany say Covid-19 admissions have almost halved. The number of cases having to be treated in the ICU has gone down to 800 from 1,500 at the beginning of this month.

“Corona is no longer a problem in intensive care units,” Gernot Marx, Vice President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, told the German Editorial Network. “A the moment, we don’t have to think every day about how to still ensure the care of patients, but how to actually run a service that can help.”

Marx said the drop has allowed them to catch up on many postponed surgeries.

The number of sick employees in hospitals is also falling, helping to relieve the pressure on personnel.

The easing pressure on hospitals correlates with the assessment of prominent virologist and head of the Virology department at Berlin’s Charite – Christian Drosten – who said in December that the pandemic was close to ending, with the winter wave being an endemic one.

German federal and state governments are now in the midst of lifting the last of the country’s pandemic-related restrictions. Free Covid-19 antigen tests for most people, with exceptions for medical personnel, recently ended.

READ ALSO: Free Covid-19 tests end in Germany

Six federal states – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Thuringia, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein – have ended mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for Covid-19.

Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt, and Schleswig-Holstein have ended the requirement to wear FFP2 masks on public transport, while Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania will follow suit on February 2nd.

At that time, the federal government will also drop its requirement for masks to be worn on long-distance trains. Labour Minister Hubertus Heil says that’s when he also intends to exempt workplaces – apart from medical locations – from a mask requirement.

READ ALSO: Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg will also end the requirement for patients to wear a mask in doctor’s offices. That’s a requirement that, so far, will stay in place everywhere else. Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has also said that he thinks this requirement should remain. 

But some public health insurers and general practitioners are calling for a nationwide end to the obligation for wearing masks in doctor’s offices.

“The pandemic situation is over,” National Association of Statutory Health Physicians (KBV) Chair Andreas Gassen told the RND network. “High-risk patients aren’t treated in all practices. It should generally be left up to medical colleagues to decide whether they want to require masks in their practices.”

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