A crisis threatens to engulf Angela Merkel’s government over her decision to suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine along with 15 other EU countries, which the Italian medicines regulator admitted was a “political decision”.
Sweden and Portugal became the latest EU countries to pause use of the vaccine, despite EU regulators and the World Health Organisation saying the Oxford University jab was safe and vaccinations lagging far behind the UK, US and Israel, after reports of seven deaths from blood clots.
There was fury in Berlin after Germany on Monday joined France, Italy and Spain in stopping the roll-out of the vaccine, until the results of a European Medicines Agency (EMA) probe into blood clots caused by the jab on Thursday.
Germany’s national disease centre warned that the country is now in a third wave and facing an exponential rise in cases that could see it break previous records by Easter.
Mrs Merkel’s closest ally, the Bavarian regional leader Markus Söder, made his feelings clear, telling German television he was ready to take the vaccine “immediately”.
Her main coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) publicly condemned the decision as a “U-turn” that suggested the government has “no clear policy”. Germany, France and the Netherlands all said the vaccine was safe last week before later suspending the jabs.
One senior SPD politician went further, describing the move as a “disaster” and calling on the health minister, Jens Spahn, to resign. The opposition Free Democrat Party called for an inquiry and said Mrs Merkel’s government had “unnecessarily endangered human lives”.
“The bottom line, sadly, is that this good and effective vaccine is not being accepted by the public in many countries because of the row and the suspension,” said Frank Ulrich Montgomery, the German head of the World Medical Association.
Thousands of Germans were informed that their appointments for the jab had been cancelled because of the suspension, leaving them with no idea when they will be vaccinated. There is now talk of people who have received one AstraZeneca jab needing to start again and be given two jabs of a rival vaccine.
The Institute for the German Economy warned that suspending use of the vaccine for just one week could cost the German economy €2bn (£1.7bn), as Germany prepares for September elections for a successor to Mrs Merkel.
“This is how trust is lost”, said Eugen Brysch of the German Foundation for Patients’ Protection, accusing Mr Spahn of “igniting a conflagration”.
France, Italy and Germany have all denied the suspension is politically motivated after AstraZeneca told the European Commission on Saturday there would be a 60 million dose shortfall in its planned deliveries to the EU by the end of March.
France’s Industry Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said on Tuesday AstraZeneca's CEO was in the "hot seat" over the delays. She said refusing to pause the jabs as a precaution would have fuelled mistrust of the vaccine, which has been dogged by unfounded fears it is less effective than other jabs.
"There must not be public mistrust. If you see decisions taken in other countries, the risk is that a mistrust of the vaccine develops," she said.
The director general of Italy’s medicines agency said the benefits of the jab outweighed the risks but that the decision to suspend was taken at political level.
“We got to the point of a suspension because several European countries, including Germany and France, preferred to interrupt vaccinations [...] to put them on hold in order to carry out checks. The choice is a political one,” Nicola Magrini told the la Repubblica newspaper.
There have been eight deaths and four cases of serious side-effects following vaccinations in Italy, he added.
On Tuesday Belgium’s health minister attacked the EU suspensions as “irresponsible”.
Frank Vandenbroucke said, “It's a kind of waterfall of decisions. I spoke to my Portuguese colleague yesterday. There they decided to suspend the vaccination campaign, but they have no data to do so.
“We are never going to get Europe vaccinated like this. Then we're going to get a third, fourth, fifth wave. We have to be careful with those chain reactions,” he said.
Marc von Ranst, Belgium's leading virologist, said that stopping the vaccinations would have meant Covid hospitalisations, long-term organ damage and deaths.
Poland has also refused to delay use of AstraZeneca. Michal Dworczyk, the Polish prime minister's chief of staff told the Polish Press Agency, "In my opinion, it is possible that we are dealing with a planned disinformation campaign and a brutal fight of medical companies."
In Brussels, the European Commission chief spokesman said that the suspension could "possibly" hurt the EU target of vaccinating 70 percent of the adult population by September 21. Asked if Ursula von der Leyen would still accept the AstraZeneca vaccine, he replied, "of course".
The UK has had one case of thrombosis in 11 million AstraZeneca vaccinations and British scientists have described the suspensions as “baffling”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is urging countries to continue using the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
According to AstraZeneca, about 17 million people in the EU and the UK have received a dose of the vaccine, with fewer than 40 cases of blood clots reported to date.
Portugal’s director-general of Health Graça Freitas said, “If you have been vaccinated, stay calm. These reactions are extremely rare and phenomena similar to those found in other countries have not been reported in our country."
María Jesús Lamas, the director of the Spanish Medicines Agency, said that the number of cases of thrombosis that could be linked to the vaccine was still very small. “We are talking about very few cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, 11 so far, and 17 million AstraZeneca vaccines have been administered in the world,” Dr Lamas said.
The suspensions are the latest twist in AstraZeneca’s strained relationship with the EU.
Brussels blames delivery delays from the British-Swedish company for the glacial pace of its vaccination rollout. AstraZeneca has promised 100 million doses in the first half of 2021 but is now accused of breaching its contract by the EU, which it denies.
The new delivery target, which is 10m less than a previous March pledge of 40m doses, hinges on whether the Netherlands grants regulatory approval to a factory in the country.
Emmanuel Macron said it was “quasi-ineffective” in the over 65s in January after false reports in the German media claiming it was just 8 percent effective in the elderley, which are believed to have hit pick-up of the vaccine on the Continent.
A string of EU countries ignored EMA advice and imposed age limits on the use of the jab before later clearing it for the elderly.