March 29 (UPI) -- Canada on Monday suspended administering the COVID-19 vaccine by AstraZeneca and Oxford University for people under 55 years of age citing concerns over blood clots reported in Europe.
The suspension was recommended by its National Advisory Committee on Immunization as the vaccine has been associated with blood clotting, a condition that has come to be known as Vaccine-Induced Prothrombotic Immune Thrombocytopenia.
No cases have bee reported in Canada, but there have been a handful reported in Europe, primarily among women below the age of 55.
More than a dozen European countries earlier this month temporarily shelved the AstraZeneca vaccine while the European regulator investigated the potential connection between blood clots and the life-saving jab. Governments have since restarted their AstraZeneca vaccine campaigns after the regulator ruled the drug was safe and its benefits outweighed its risks.
Dr. Shelley Deeks, vice chair of NACI, said during a virtual press conference Monday they were suggesting provinces pause their AstraZeneca inoculation programs given other drugs are available as a "precautionary measure" while Health Canada conducts its own risk analysis.
"There is substantial uncertainty about the benefit of providing AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to adults under 55 years of age given that the potential risks associated with VIPIT, particularly at lower estimated rates," she said.
The European regulator found instances of such cases to be about 1 per 1 million, but the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany's federal medical regulator, said it was about 1 per 100,000 people, Deeks said, adding the fatality rate was about 40% though that number may decline as knowledge of VIPIT spreads.
Deeks said the two-shot AstraZeneca regimen would continue to be offered to those over 55 years of age due to the risk of COVID-19 to this demographic and the low risk of developing blood clots.
"More study on this event needs to be done," said Caroline Quach-Thanh, chair of NACI. "We do not yet know what mechanism would cause this association or this event."
Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters during a press conference concerning tourism against the backdrop of the Niagara Falls that he will not hesitate to halt the use of the drug for those under the age of 55 if necessary.
"I won't hesitate to cancel that in half a heartbeat," he said. "If it's going to put any human in harm, we won't use it. It's as simple as that."
The pause was implemented as the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come under criticism for the slow vaccine rollout due to delays and short supply despite the number of doses it has secured.
On March 19, the White House announced it would be loaning Canada some 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine while the U.S. regulator considers granting the vaccine emergency use approval.
According to Health Canada, more than 5.3 million doses of the five vaccines approved for use in the country have been administered as of Monday.
More than 80 nations have approved use of the AstraZeneca drug, data collected by COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker said.