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Why European nations are suspending use of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine

A growing number of European nations are suspending use of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine, one of three on the continent, after reports of blood clots and other problems among a small number of people. AstraZeneca says these are isolated cases. Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A growing number of European countries are suspending their use of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine, one of three used on the continent and one of the most promising to combat the global pandemic because of cost and easier storage.

    William Brangham looks at the concerns driving those decisions and how public health officials see it.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, a group of nations, including Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, stopped using the shots after reports of blood clots and other problems among a small number of people who apparently got the vaccine.

    AstraZeneca says there's no evidence of a link, and says these are isolated cases, just 35 out of over 17 million vaccinations so far. The company argues these are the same numbers you would find among the general population.

    For some context on all of this, I'm joined by Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo. She's a physician, epidemiologist, and professor and chair of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

    Dr. Bibbins-Domingo, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Before we talk about some of these alleged side effects, I think we should stress that this is not a shot — the AstraZeneca vaccine is not being administered in the U.S., so nobody here is getting these shots just yet. They're waiting for FDA approval.

    But European nations and elsewhere are using this shot, and these concerns have come up. Can you tell us, what is it that has arisen that is so troubling?

  • Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    There's a small number of cases, somewhat over 30 cases, in Norway of blood clots. Blood clots are generally common in the general population.

    And there are some particular features about these blood clots. They were also associated with low platelets and led to some pretty severe consequences, but a small number. And I think the problem for vaccination campaigns and for new vaccines is that, when you vaccinate millions of people, it's hard to tell whether a small number of cases of something that can happen anyway without a vaccine is because of the vaccine or just because it happens, because things like blood clots happen in the general public.

  • William Brangham:

    Meaning, so you could have people getting backaches after getting their shots and make an association, but they may have no bearing whatsoever.

    Is that your sense of what is going on here?

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    That's exactly right.

    And it is a challenge, because, as you said, we're vaccinating millions and millions of people, and people tend to attribute something that happens to the vaccine that they had.

    I think what we have to do with a new vaccine is, we have to monitor. And that is, in fact, what these countries are doing, what the European medical regulatory bodies are doing. They're monitoring for these rare events, and they're trying to understand them and doing the investigation about whether what has happened in Norway is, in fact, causally related to the vaccine.

    The reality is, these are small numbers of cases, and if you just look at the numbers, the numbers don't suggest that this is more than what we would expect in a population of this size being vaccinated. There's other evidence from other countries where we don't see these types of blood clots at a number we'd anticipate greater than what we would anticipate.

    So — but I think it is good to be cautious. And I think the only concern is whether the rapid suspension of all of the vaccination efforts in Europe is warranted, or whether we should do these types of investigations while still proceeding with the vaccinations. And that's where I think some of the controversy comes in right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Because, just as you're noting, the Europeans are seeing an uptick in cases. We know these variants are galloping all over the world. And this seems a particularly inopportune time to take one of our best weapons so far and put it back on the shelf, even temporarily.

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    That's exactly right.

    And I think it is important for us in the U.S. — we have had a fairly good rollout of our vaccination campaigns, and across the country, our numbers of cases are relatively low right now, at least controlled.

    In Europe, cases are actually surging. Their vaccination rollout has been slower than in the U.S. Probably about 10 percent of the European population has received the first dose. And so it is concerning when we take one of our most effective tools and put the back in the toolbox and say we're not going to use it anymore.

    And I think that's the tension right now in what is going on in Europe.

  • William Brangham:

    The European Medicine Agency, I believe it's called, said that they're working with AstraZeneca to scrutinize all of the data.

    Do you have a sense from past investigations like this how long this might last? I mean, when — let's just say they give the drug the all-clear. How quickly do you think shots might be administered again of the AstraZeneca? Drug?

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    Sure.

    I think one of the things they will look at is the actual numbers of these types of events in the countries like Norway that actually has pulled this, as well as all of the many places where AstraZeneca is being administered in Europe. They're going to look for whether there are rates of blood clots that are higher than one would expect.

    They're probably going to scrutinize the lots and whether this is something related to a particular lot of the vaccine, as opposed to something widespread related to AstraZeneca in general.

    And I think there are — as we said, there is an urgency to get a safe vaccine into the general public in Europe and everywhere across the country, and AstraZeneca is an important tool. I think, as soon as there is an all-clear, people will want to resume vaccinating immediately.

    I think the challenge is whether public perception about the halts of these campaigns will now lead to more hesitancy around actually accepting this particular vaccine.

  • William Brangham:

    Exactly.

    Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo from U.C. San Francisco, thank you very much for being here.

  • Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo:

    Thanks having me.

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