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Several Countries Curb Use Of AstraZeneca Vaccine Use Amid Blood Clot Concerns


Australia and Greece are the latest countries to recommend alternatives to the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine for young people after researchers found more rare but potentially fatal blood clots linked to the vaccine. European officials have identified roughly 200 clots among 25 million people who received the AstraZeneca shots in Europe and the U.K. NPR's Jason Beaubien has been following this story. Jason, thanks so much for being with us.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It's good to be with you.

SIMON: What does the new research published just yesterday say?

BEAUBIEN: Well, we still don't know exactly what's happening in these patients. But the papers - they're published in the New England Journal of Medicine. They look at 16 cases in Norway, Germany and Austria. And here's what they found. Symptoms begin in these people about a week to 14 days after the immunization. The patients start out with these severe headaches. They get muscle aches, swelling. Nine of the 16 died, and most of them were young women in their 20s and 30s.

SIMON: And do they know why?

BEAUBIEN: At this point, it's too early to tell. The predominance among women may be due to the fact that Norway was using AstraZeneca for health care workers, who, you know, skew more towards women, and they were using Pfizer to vaccinate their older population. You know, initially, European regulators said that the rates of this clotting disorder were no higher than what you'd expect to see in the general population, but they've changed that now. And they're saying, yes, it does appear that in roughly 1 in 100,000 people vaccinated with AstraZeneca, this serious side effect could occur.

SIMON: Of course, we should note AstraZeneca is not yet authorized in the U.S., but what about other countries? Are they reassessing whether or not they're going to use it?

BEAUBIEN: Well, some are switching how they're using it. They're offering alternatives to younger people and trying to use AstraZeneca more with older groups, where it appears to be safer. But many countries don't really have a choice. You know, AstraZeneca is the vaccine much of the world is banking on, the expectation that 3 billion doses of it will be distributed in 2021, and that's more than any other vaccine.

Yesterday, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, he stressed that the number of vaccine-related clots is incredibly small compared to the nearly 3 million people who've already died from COVID.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: All vaccines and medicines carry a risk of side effects. In this case, the risks of severe diseases and deaths from COVID-19 are many times higher than the very small risks related to the vaccine.

BEAUBIEN: But this clearly is a public relations problem. I was talking to a doctor in Gambia, and he was saying AstraZeneca is the only vaccine being offered in his West African nation. And many people, particularly young people, are citing the clotting news that they're hearing out of Europe as a reason not to get vaccinated.

SIMON: Jason, has the World Health Organization addressed those concerns?

BEAUBIEN: So, you know, I ran this by Saad Omer, who runs the Institute for Global Health at Yale. And he says this whole incident and the amount of attention these few dozen cases of blood clots are getting should actually be comforting to the public. He says it shows that the vaccine-monitoring systems are working.

SAAD OMER: People should be reassured that there are entities and individuals and bodies and scientists looking at this stuff aggressively and proactively.

BEAUBIEN: You know, when you're setting out to vaccinate billions of people around the globe, there are going to be some adverse reactions. But Omer says, you know, it's good that the researchers in Europe identified this quickly. They're looking for solutions. And hopefully public health officials will be able to tailor the distribution of this vaccine in a way that will minimize these rare side effects as much as possible.

SIMON: NPR's Jason Beaubien, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.

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