EU Move Raises Confusion over AstraZeneca Vaccine

  • By Bae Jun-yong

    February 04, 2021 13:24

    Questions are being raised about British-Swedish pharma giant AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine after several European countries restricted it for use among the elderly.

    The European Medicines Agency authorized the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine on Jan. 29, but major EU countries are trying to avoid using for older people citing insufficient data that they work for patients over 65.

    Germany, France, Sweden and Austria have recommended using AstraZeneca's vaccine only for people under 65, while Poland has capped the age at 60 and Belgium and Italy at 55. On Wednesday, Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, became the first European country that failed to approve the vaccine, saying clinical data are insufficient.

    But the U.K. insists the vaccine, which was developed at Oxford University, is efficacious and safe for all age groups. The U.K.-based company has also fallen behind in production of vaccines under its contracts with the EU and been accused of illegally favoring the U.K.

    /AFP-Yonhap

    Korea has made no decision which vaccines to administer to which age group, but older people are likely to be given AstraZeneca's vaccine first. An independent panel of experts appointed by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety preliminarily agreed that the vaccine is safe for over-65s.

    Jeong Eun-kyeong, the chief of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said Monday that Pfizer's vaccine may not be given to some elderly people in nursing homes or geriatric hospitals because it has to be refrigerated at ultra-low temperatures. She said AstraZeneca's vaccine could be used instead to develop herd immunity even supposing it is less effective. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety meets with pharmacists on Thursday to discuss the vaccine further.

    In the first quarter, enough doses of Pfizer's vaccine for 60,000 people and from AstraZeneca for 750,000 are expected to arrive in Korea. Additional AstraZeneca doses for 1.3-2.19 million people will be imported through the WHO-led COVAX Facility by the second quarter. This suggests that the government is stuck with AstraZeneca's vaccine unless it shifts its inoculation timeline, which is already being criticized for being grindingly slow.

    Moderna and Janssen vaccines will not arrive until the second quarter, but it remains to be seen how many Korea can secure. That means AstraZeneca vaccines could account for the bulk of volume in the first six months of this year.

    Experts here remain divided. Kim Woo-joo at Korea University said, "There is not enough clinical data on AstraZeneca vaccines administered on senior citizens. I don't know what else could be done considering the supply volume, but we need to carefully consider accessing additional clinical data."

    And Ma Sang-hyuk, vice president of the Korean Vaccine Society, said, "Nobody knows their efficacy on people over 65. But we must first start vaccinations to achieve herd immunity and conduct our own studies at the same time."

    Jung Jae-hoon of Gachon University's Gil Medical Center also said, "There's little chance of another vaccine being imported before the second quarter, so we'll have to start with them."

    Meanwhile, the daily tally of new coronavirus infections soared to over 400 with 451 cases as of Thursday morning.

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