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March 17, 2021, 4:04 p.m. EDT

WHO urges countries to keep using AstraZeneca vaccine as ‘benefits outweigh risks’

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By Callum Keown and Lina Saigol

The World Health Organization has urged countries to continue using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, as it said the benefits outweighed the risks. 

Several European countries — including Germany, France, Italy and most recently Sweden — have temporarily paused use of the shot from drug company AstraZeneca /zigman2/quotes/200304487/composite AZN -2.77% following reports of blood clots in some people who have received it.

The suspensions have further slowed Europe’s vaccine rollout, which has lagged behind countries including the U.S. and the U.K.

The WHO, which has previously said there is no evidence the vaccine caused clotting issues, is “carefully assessing” the safety data and will publish a full review of its findings. 

“Vaccination against COVID-19 will not reduce illness or deaths from other causes. Thromboembolic events are known to occur frequently,” the WHO said in a statement on Wednesday. “At this time, WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks and recommends that vaccinations continue,” it added.

The statement echoes that of Europe’s drugs regulator, which said on Tuesday that there is “no indication” that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is the cause of reported blood clots.

“We are still firmly convinced that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing COVID-19, with its associated risk of hospitalization and death, outweigh the risk of these side effects,” said Emer Cooke, executive director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

She added that the number of blood clots reported in vaccinated people is no higher than that seen in the general population. “We know that many thousands of people develop blood clots in the EU so what we want is to establish whether these events are caused by the vaccine or by other causes,” Cooke said.

Read: Buy AstraZeneca on possibly ‘underwhelming’ vaccine trial data, Jefferies says

AstraZeneca has said a review of safety data, covering 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and the U.K., had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots.

Shares in AstraZeneca /zigman2/quotes/203048482/delayed UK:AZN -2.93% , which are down 3% in the year to date, were 1.8% lower in afternoon London trading on Wednesday.

The EMA is set to release the results of its own investigation into incidents of bleeding, blood clots and low platelet counts in recipients of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on Thursday afternoon.

Both France and Italy signaled late on Tuesday that they were prepared to restart the administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine if the EMA says the COVID-19 shot is safe.

India said on Wednesday that its inoculation drive would continue with “full rigor” despite some concerns in Europe about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which the country depends heavily on.

Read: Amid vaccine hurdles, EU battles to save summer vacations with COVID travel pass

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, as he looked to shore up public trust in the shot, which has been developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford.

Johnson, who was hospitalized with COVID-19 last year, told Parliament on Wednesday that he had “finally” got the news that he was to be inoculated “very shortly,” adding that it would “certainly” be the AstraZeneca vaccine he would receive.

The EMA’s Cooke said on Tuesday that she was concerned that the decisions by governments to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine could undermine public trust for vaccines. “Our job is to make sure that the products we authorize are safe and can be trusted by European citizens,” she said.

The news comes as Europe braces for a spike in coronavirus infections.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that the continent’s epidemiological situation is “getting worse” and is “worrisome,” and that there is the “crest of a third wave forming in member states.”

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