German Health Minister Jens Spahn speaks next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday when they announced further use of the vaccine AstraZeneca would be halted for those under 60. Photo by Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE
March 31 (UPI) -- German health officials restricted the use of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine to those over the age of 60 due to concerns of rare yet severe cases of blood clots in younger people who had received the shot.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Health Minister Jens Spahn made the announcement during a press conference on Tuesday to halt administering the drug to those under 60 years of age on the recommendations of the country's independent Standing Vaccination Commission.
Merkel added that those below 60 may still receive the life-saving jab at a doctor's discretion.
Concerning the 2.2 million younger Germans who have already received the first shot of the two-dose regimen, Merkel said the STIKO will make a recommendation by the end of April.
"The recommendations of the Standing Vaccination Commission are based on findings collected by experts in recent weeks on very rare, but very severe cases of thrombosis in people vaccinated with AstraZeneca vaccine," she said. "These are findings that the Standing Vaccination Commission, and thus also us, cannot ignore."
The announcement follows the commission submitting a revision to its COVID-19 vaccination recommendations that are based on expert findings concerning very rare but very serious cases of blood clotting occurring in younger Europeans who have received the vaccine.
The move comes some two weeks after the European drug regulator reviewed a handful of cases of blood clotting connected to the shot among the 27-member bloc and ruled that it was safe and its benefits outweighed its risks.
The investigation by the European Medicines Agency was conducted after Germany and some dozen other European countries suspended all use of the AstraZeneca drug due Norway announcing a small number of cases of clotting and bleeding.
In announcing its conclusions, the European Medicines Agency said March 18 that a total of 469 such thromboembolic cases following being inoculated were found with 191 occurring within the European Economic Area, a rate lower than observed in the general population.
Spahn said 31 cases of the rare brain blood clotting had been observed in the country as of Monday, nine of which were fatal. Nearly all of the cases were women under the age of 60, he said.
"Overall, it is a question of weighing up the risks of a side effect, which is statistically low but serious and the risk of developing coronavirus and suffering a severe course or long-term consequences of the disease," he said. "In this balance -- on this our experts agree very much -- one thing is very clear: vaccination is almost always the better decision."
A benefit to the halt, the pair said, is that now they may ramp up vaccinations for those over the age of 60, which is a high-risk demographic to suffer from severe COVID-19 symptoms.
"In this respect, I can only explicitly ask all people over the age of 60 to take advantage of this vaccination offer and to be vaccinated as early as possible, which can also lead them as role models in this vaccination campaign," Spahn said.
Germany's announcement came a day after Canada halted administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to those under the age of 55.
The country's National Advisory Committee on Immunization made the recommendation with Canadian health officials stating more study of the vaccine needs to be conducted.
"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," Dr. Shelley Deeks, vice chair of NACI, said, referring to the blood clotting condition as Vaccine-Induced Prothrmobotic Immune Thrombocytopenia.
More than 80 countries including the EU as well as the World Health Organization have approved use of the AstraZeneca vaccine jointly developed with Oxford University.