European Countries Halt AstraZeneca Rollout Over Clotting Fears
Although the moves are seen as precautionary, they could cause lasting damage to the global vaccine rollout.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: EU countries halt AstraZeneca vaccine rollout over clotting fears, North Korea issues a warning, and Brazil gets its fourth health minister in a year.
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AstraZeneca Rollout Paused Across Europe
Experts from the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization meet separately today to assess the risks surrounding the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, as reports of abnormal side effects led countries across Europe to halt their vaccine rollouts.
The European Union’s four largest countries—Germany, France, Spain, and Italy—joined with smaller European nations on Monday to temporarily stop the distribution of the vaccine. The decision was driven by reports in Norway and Denmark of patients developing blood clots, some of which were fatal, after they had received the AstraZeneca shot.
The allegation that the vaccine is responsible for the cases in Norway and Denmark is not yet supported by any clear evidence. AstraZeneca has come out forcefully against the decision to pause vaccinations, pointing to the nearly 17 million people who have already received their dose without incident. The company said 15 events of deep vein thrombosis and 22 events of pulmonary embolism have been reported among those vaccinated, which it says is much lower than would be expected in the general population.
The European Medicines Agency reached the same conclusion in a statement released on Monday. While it said its investigation is ongoing, it nevertheless said the benefits of getting the vaccine outweigh any risks.
Sluggish rollout. Any halt in vaccine distribution will slow an already sluggish rollout for EU member states, who were already at odds with AstraZeneca over delivery delays. Only 7.7 percent of the EU’s population has received a first vaccine dose, far behind the numbers receiving their first shots in the United Kingdom (36 percent) and the United States (21 percent).
A third wave? It also comes as Europe prepares for a third wave of infections. Cases are on an upward trajectory in the bloc, with roughly 126,000 new coronavirus cases daily—more than double the daily figure in the United States.
Although worries of fatally adverse side effects are so far unfounded, AstraZeneca does face some undisputed problems. Over the weekend, it emerged that the company may only deliver 100 million doses to the EU by the end of the second quarter of 2021, far short of the 300 million it had previously promised.
Ripple effects. Any reputational dent will be felt far beyond the EU’s borders. African Union member states have placed a huge bet on the vaccine, ordering 500 million doses, a bigger order than the EU, United States, or the COVAX initiative. The vaccine is also the shot of choice for Latin America, with 150 million doses on order. As well as being easier to store, AstraZeneca’s vaccine is also much cheaper than rivals, at roughly $4 a dose versus around $20 for the Pfizer-BioNTech shot.
Europe’s uncertainty has not deterred Mexico, whose government has asked the United States for a vaccine “loan” of the AstraZeneca vaccines it already has in stock. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, Mexican authorities have already approved the vaccine.
What We’re Following Today
Kim’s message. Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, issued a warning to the United States as she criticized joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises. “If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step,” Kim said, referring to the Biden administration, in a statement carried by state news agency KCNA.
The remarks come as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and are to meet with their South Korean counterparts in Seoul. Before Kim’s statement, the White House admitted to failed backchannel diplomatic attempts with Pyongyang.
Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch, who is traveling with Austin on the trip, reports from Tokyo on the challenges facing the two U.S. officials as they seek to reassure Asian allies.
Brazil’s new health minister. Brazil has its fourth health minister in less than 12 months after Marcelo Queiroga, the president of the Brazilian Society of Cardiology, replaced army general Eduardo Pazuello on Monday. Ludhmila Hajjar, a physician and COVID-19 researcher, said she had been offered the job by President Jair Bolsonaro but declined.
Despite its governmental turmoil and record high death rate last week, Brazil received a boost to its vaccination program Monday when it signed a deal with Pfizer for 100 million vaccine doses.
Brexit troubles. The European Union has initiated legal proceedings against the United Kingdom for unilaterally changing the terms of trading agreements between the two sides. Under the Brexit deal, a grace period for import checks on some goods arriving in Northern Ireland—which is part of the U.K. but remains in the EU single market for goods—is due to end in March. The British government’s decision to unilaterally extend that grace period to Oct. 1 led to the EU’s legal action.
Keep an Eye On
Mexico’s migrant crackdown. Mexico has launched a crackdown on migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border, with roughly 1,200 migrants apprehended by authorities on train routes between Jan. 25 and Feb. 16, according to Mexico’s immigration agency. A further 800 were detained while traveling on buses and tractor trailers. The agency did not provide comparable data from previous periods, but Mexico’s former immigration chief Tonatiuh Guillen said the scale and frequency of detentions were unprecedented.
The apparent increase comes as U.S. border agents recorded more than 100,000 apprehensions and expulsions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in February, the highest monthly figure since 2019.
Khalilzad to Moscow. U.S. Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad will attend a summit in Moscow this Thursday alongside the Taliban and Afghan government, the U.S. State Department has confirmed. China and Pakistan have also been invited to attend. Russia is not the only regional power attempting to broker peace in Afghanistan; Turkey is expected to host peace talks in Istanbul in April.
Odds and Ends
Icelanders in the town of Grindavik on the island’s Reykjanes peninsula are begging for a volcanic eruption so they can finally get some sleep. Literally the “smoking” peninsula, the area has seen unprecedented seismic activity in recent weeks—40,000 earthquakes have been recorded since Feb. 24, more than the total amount for the previous year.
“Everyone here is so tired,” Rannveig Gudmundsdottir, a Grindavik resident, told Reuters. “When I go to bed at night, all I think about is: Am I going to get any sleep tonight?”
Unlike the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which halted tens of thousands of flights in 2010, any eruption is expected only to disrupt life for those in Grindavik. Authorities have already planned for evacuations, including by sea if lava flows block road access.
That’s it for today.
Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn