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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

Court turns down AfD-led challenge to Germany’s spending in pandemic

The German Constitutional Court rejected challenges Tuesday to Berlin's participation in the European Union's coronavirus recovery fund, but expressed some reservations about the massive package.

Court turns down AfD-led challenge to Germany's spending in pandemic

Germany last year ratified the €750-billion ($790-billion) fund, which offers loans and grants to EU countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

The court in Karlsruhe ruled on two challenges, one submitted by a former founder of the far-right AfD party, and the other by a businessman.

They argued the fund could ultimately lead to Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, having to take on the debts of other EU member states on a permanent basis.

But the Constitutional Court judges ruled the EU measure does not violate Germany’s Basic Law, which forbids the government from sharing other countries’ debts.

READ ALSO: Germany plans return to debt-limit rules in 2023

The judgement noted the government had stressed that the plan was “intended to be a one-time instrument in reaction to an unprecedented crisis”.

It also noted that the German parliament retains “sufficient influence in the decision-making process as to how the funds provided will be used”.

The judges, who ruled six to one against the challenges, did however express some reservations.

They questioned whether paying out such a large amount over the planned period – until 2026 – could really be considered “an exceptional measure” to fight the pandemic.

At least 37 percent of the funds are aimed at achieving climate targets, the judges said, noting it was hard to see a link between combating global warming and the pandemic.

READ ALSO: Germany to fast-track disputed €200 billion energy fund

They also warned against any permanent mechanism that could lead to EU members taking on joint liability over the long term.

Berenberg Bank economist Holger Schmieding said the ruling had “raised serious doubts whether the joint issuance to finance the fund is in line with” EU treaties.

“The German court — once again — emphasised German limits for EU fiscal integration,” he said.

The court had already thrown out a legal challenge, in April 2021, that had initially stopped Berlin from ratifying the financial package.

Along with French President Emmanuel Macron, then chancellor Angela Merkel sketched out the fund in 2020, which eventually was agreed by the EU’s 27 members in December.

The first funds were disbursed in summer 2021, with the most given to Italy and Spain, both hit hard by the pandemic.

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