EU ministers fail to agree on AstraZeneca policy in ‘exasperating’ meeting
Health ministers failed yesterday to agree a joint EU policy on suspending the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in younger age groups, despite fresh advice from the bloc’s medicines regulator on potential links to rare forms of blood clotting.
EU ministers held a meeting after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) revealed findings from an ongoing review of the vaccine, but were unable to translate the regulator’s advice into a common approach regarding which age groups should be targeted.
As a result, Germany, Italy and Spain will only use the jab on the over-60s, while Belgium and France will stick to its over-55s bracket. Finland and Sweden have a higher cut-off point with the over-65s, while Denmark will continue its total ban pending an inquiry.
According to EU diplomats, the meeting of health ministers was “exasperating” as no consensus was possible.
EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that “the AstraZeneca experience shows that our pharmacovigilance system works. But it’s essential that we follow a coordinated approach. We must speak with one voice to improve public trust in vaccinations.”
Portugal, which currently chairs the EU Council, also urged governments to “work towards the most coordinated position possible in the EU” to no avail.
Portuguese health minister Marta Temido said afterwards that “this is a technical decision. It is not a political decision. We must continue to follow the best scientific information provided by EMA in its opinions. We must not forget that individual decisions affect everybody.”
Some health ministers were disappointed that the EMA was not more explicit in its recommendations, as the agency provided no specific guidance on what age groups are most at risk from potential blood clotting events, due to lack of data.
EU governments have made a habit of disregarding the regulator’s advice at different stages during the pandemic anyway.
Despite repeatedly saying that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the rare risks, leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron have questioned its efficacy, previously labelling the AstraZeneca jab as “quasi-ineffective” in older groups.
“Vaccination policy is a matter of national competence, they can take the EMA’s opinion and assessment into account but they can choose to apply stricter approaches if they wish,” a Commission spokesman said when asked if it is frustrating that the agency’s advice is not followed to the letter.
The spokesman added that it would be helpful if national authorities appointed experts to work with the EMA as further inquiries using more in-depth data continue.
The Commission is currently working on a plan to design a vaccine passport, dubbed a ‘green pass’, within the EU, in an attempt to reopen borders and boost travel ahead of the crucial summer tourism season.
National governments will have to agree on the Commission’s plan, but the lack of coordination so far and differing opinions over what brands of vaccines should be recognised could drag out the approval process so long that passports are no longer useful.