When European drug regulators acknowledged a link between AstraZeneca PLC’s COVID-19 vaccine and a rare type of blood clots, it spread another dose of skepticism across the continent. But in the poorer east, the doubts are more over the findings than the shot.
Most western members of the European Union announced some restrictions of the vaccine’s use for younger age groups or halted it completely. The opposite happened across the east, with nine of 11 nations in the region deciding to keep administrating the shot to all adults.
“Let’s not create unnecessary panic,” Bulgarian Health Minister Kostadin Angelov said as he listed the benefits of Astra drug. “Let’s not become a part of that war between the different companies, because it’s already visible.”
The former Eastern Bloc is home to almost a quarter of the EU’s 440 million population and is struggling to tame the pandemic. For these countries-which dominate the world’s top 10 list of coronavirus deaths per capita-curbing a vaccine that’s key to their supplies is unthinkable because they can’t afford to slow inoculation. Germany, by comparison, has doubled the number of daily COVID-19 vaccinations, while France hit a key milestone a week early.
The world is counting on the Astra shot because of its price and ease-of-use, and it represents most of the vaccines ordered by about a third of eastern EU members. The vaccine is more easily transported and stored than the mRNA-based vaccines from Moderna Inc. and Pfizer-BioNTech, and the Anglo-Swedish company has promised to deliver as many as 3 billion shots in 2021 on a not-for-profit basis.
Hungary, which strayed from the EU-orchestrated procurement program and directly purchased vaccines from Russia and China, also has sought to express its support for Astra.
“The debate surrounding AstraZeneca’s vaccine should be viewed as a business struggle between drugmakers rather than valid opinions on medical risks,” Gergely Gulyas, the minister in charge of the prime minister’s office, said on April 8.
A day earlier, the EU and U.K. regulators said there was a possible link between the Astra shot and blood clots, though both said the risks for most people were far outweighed by the benefits as the coronavirus remains rife. Britain, whose vaccination program is way ahead of the rest of the continent, is now recommending under 30s get a different one.
In Bulgaria, the poorest and least vaccinated nation in the EU, the more expensive vaccines were used to inoculate priority groups such as doctors and teachers. Astra is the most widely available to the general public.
The country’s inoculation effort was already marred by poor organization and a 37% refusal rate among its 7 million citizens to get vaccinated, according to a March poll by Exacta Research. Bulgaria will keep applying the Astra shot to all age groups but will offer a different jab to women with a high risk of thrombosis, in line with EMA recommendations, the health minister said.
Leaders elsewhere have been vocal about their own inoculation with Astra, hoping to boost its credibility as citizens get restless over lengthy lockdowns and a continuous string of record coronavirus-related deaths and new infections.
In Croatia, among the nations that has predominantly ordered Astra, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said Thursday that he and other leaders have been administered the shot, stressing the “vaccine is safe and people should get vaccinated.”
In Estonia, premier Kaja Kallas, who at 43 would be considered to be in a more risky age category for the Astra shot in Western Europe, expressed disappointment in her coalition partner for postponing his vaccination. The government and parliament decided last month to get Astra shots for all its members. Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, meanwhile, said this week that it’s better to get any vaccine than risk getting the disease.
To Stjepan Oreskovic, public health professor at the University of Zagreb, the split between East and West over Astra has exposed the frailties of the EU. The pandemic has also laid bare how the countries that joined the bloc since 2004 have done little to upgrade their health care systems, hurt by lack of funds and exodus of workers to Western Europe.
“It revealed the traditional distribution of power in the EU and showed we still have the center and the periphery,” said Oreskovic. “In other words, the West and the East.”
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