‘Precautionary measure’: Sweden halts AstraZeneca vaccine pending investigation

The Swedish Public Health Agency has suspended use of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine as a ‘precautionary measure’ pending an investigation by European health authorities, who recommend that countries keep using the vaccine for now.

'Precautionary measure': Sweden halts AstraZeneca vaccine pending investigation
The European Medicines Agency has said that so far the number of blood clots does not seem to be higher than that in the general population. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

The decision comes after several European countries, including Germany, France and Italy, halted the use of the vaccine after a small number of blood clotting incidents.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said on Monday that it was investigating the data but that its view thus far was that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risk of side effects. Both EMA and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have recommended countries to continue using the vaccine while the investigation is still ongoing.

“Events involving blood clots, some with unusual features such as low numbers of platelets, have occurred in a very small number of people who received the vaccine,” EMA said in a statement.

“Many thousands of people develop blood clots annually in the EU for different reasons. The number of thromboembolic events overall in vaccinated people seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population.”

As of March 10th, 30 cases of thromboembolic events (blood clots) had been reported among almost 5 million people vaccinated with AstraZeneca in the European Economic Area.

The Swedish Public Health Agency said no cases of blood clots in combination with low levels of platelets had been reported in Sweden.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell described the decision to halt the AstraZeneca jab as a “precautionary measure”.

“There is good knowledge about the vaccine, but it is still important that we pause vaccinations until EMA has investigated whether these events could be linked to vaccination,” he said in a statement.

Tegnell said the decision to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine was not primarily linked to blood clotting incidents, which as EMA said do not appear to be more common among vaccinated people than in the general population, but rather the low number of platelets.

“It’s rare but serious, and can happen for very many different reasons, but there have been a number of cases where there is a connection, timing-wise, to the AstraZeneca vaccinations,” Tegnell told Swedish news agency TT. “We’re talking around 10-20 cases in Europe out of several millions of vaccinations.”

Other countries that have also halted the use of the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company’s vaccine have also stressed that it is being done as a precaution.

The Swedish Medical Products Agency said last week that it did “not consider that there is sufficient support to discontinue vaccination with AstraZeneca’s vaccine”. But a spokesperson said on Tuesday that it nonetheless backed the Public Health Agency’s latest decision.

“Considering that this is an ongoing investigation that will likely be concluded this week, we support the Public Health Agency in that this may be an appropriate precautionary measure, since we’re likely talking about a short period of time before we have the results of the investigation,” the spokesperson told TT.

More than a million vaccinations have been carried out in Sweden, including AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech.

More than 710,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Sweden, and more than 13,000 have died in the pandemic.

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Did Sweden’s state epidemiologist really get a big job at the WHO?

For his supporters, it was well-deserved, for his detractors a case of failing upwards. But when Sweden's Public Health Agency announced this month that state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell was taking a job at the World Health Organisation, both sides assumed it was true.

Did Sweden's state epidemiologist really get a big job at the WHO?

Now, it seems, the job might not be there after all. 

At the start of this month, Sweden’s Public Health Agency announced that Anders Tegnell was resigning to take up a post coordinating vaccine work with the World Health Organisation in Geneva. 

“I’ve worked with vaccines for 30 years and have at the same time always been inspired by international issues,” Tegnell said in the release. “Now I will have the chance to contribute to this comprehensive international work.”

During the first and second waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tegnell shot immediately from obscurity into the spotlight, gaining such celebrity status in Sweden that one fan had his profile tattooed onto his arm.

Internationally he was hailed by lockdown sceptics for his reasoned arguments against overly restrictive measures to control the spread of the virus. 

His new WHO appointment was reported all over the world. 

But on Tuesday, the Svenska Daglabdet newspaper revealed that the job had not yet been awarded. A spokesperson for the WHO said at a press conference in Geneva that “there is some confusion”, and that “this is an internal question.” 

According to the newspaper, there is even “a certain level of irritation” behind the scenes at the WHO that Sweden acted too soon and dispatched Tegnell to a job that did not actually exist yet. 

“We have received an offer from Sweden, which is still under discussion,” the organisation’s press spokesperson, Fadela Chaib, told the newspaper. 

On Thursday, the Public Health Agency’s press chief Christer Janson conceded that there had been a mistake and that the negotiation had not been completed.  

“We believed it was done, but it wasn’t,” he told Expressen in an interview. “It’s been a much longer process to get this completed than we thought. There’s been a misunderstanding and we regret that.”