Decision to pause use of AstraZeneca jab could lead to more deaths as new variant cases increase rapidly
Medical staff transport a patient in Angers, France. Experts have warned Europe is at the start of a third wave. Photograph: Loïc Venance/AFP/Getty Images
Large parts of Europe are at the start of a third coronavirus wave, experts have said, with warnings that the decision to pause the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine over health concerns is likely lead to a rise in cases and a high number of deaths as more contagious new variants account for the majority of cases.
Christian Drosten, a leading virologist at Berlin’s Charité hospital said Germany’s epidemiological situation was “not good right now”, and was compounded both by the exponential rise in the spread of the B117 mutation which first originated in Britain that now makes up about three-quarters of new cases in Germany, and the decision to temporarily stop using Oxford/AstraZeneca. “We need this vaccine,” he insisted.
He warned that by Easter, German cases could be expected to reach the high levels last seen around Christmas. “The situation could get drastically worse,” he said. His stark warnings came just as parts of Germany are starting to open up after a lengthy lockdown, which, it had widely been hoped, would be relaxed around the Easter holidays.
Cases have also increased in Italy, which on Tuesday recorded a daily death toll of 502, its highest since late January. The health minister, Roberto Speranza, said more than half of new infections were being driven by the UK variant. Coronavirus restrictions were intensified across Italy on Monday, with more than half of the country returned to the toughest “red zone” category.
“The situation is not simple,” Speranza said. “The UK variant spreads 35-40% faster and represents 54% of total cases. The South African variant is also present, especially in the Bolzano area, and the Brazilian one is mostly in central Italy.”
On Tuesday Poland announced a three-week partial lockdown from this weekend with a full closure of schools, as well as shopping malls, pools and gyms to join already shut restaurants, and people were urged to stay at home. The health minister, Adam Niedzielski, said the UK variant was responsible for the majority of new infections, which totalled 25,000 over the previous 24 hours on Wednesday.
Speculation also grew in France of a weekend lockdown in addition to the existing 6pm-6am daily curfew for Paris and the wider Île-de-France as the prime minister, Jean Castex, warned “the moment has come to envisage measures for the region”.
Paris-area hospitals have begun to move intensive care patients out to less affected areas, and in the far-west of France eight people who contracted a so-called “Brittany variant” that appears not to show up on existing tests have died.
Castex said that as soon as France lifts its suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which he said he hoped would come as soon as Thursday when the European Medicines Agency issues its ruling, he will reassure the population it is safe, as “vaccines are the only way out of this crisis”.
Drosten however warned in his weekly Corona Virus Update podcast that the situation in Germany could be “particularly dicey” for those in the 50-plus age bracket, who had not yet been inoculated and had no prospect of receiving a jab in the near future. They could face a more severe bout of the illness than younger patients, he said.
A sluggish vaccine programme, hampered by a shortage of supplies, has already been far slower than expected, with a promise by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that every German adult should have an appointment for a vaccine by 21 September looking increasingly in doubt. Most Germans in the 80-plus age group have now received their first jab.
Parts of Germany are starting to open up after a lengthy lockdown, which, it had widely been hoped, would be further relaxed around the Easter holidays in two weeks. Non-essential shops are open to customers with appointments, as are hairdressers, and hotels and restaurants are awaiting an announcement on 22 March, cautiously optimistic they would finally be able to reopen. Some school students have begun returning in shift patterns.
But Germany’s incidence rate has risen to 88.8 per 100,000 over seven days, far beyond the 50 mark that the government had set as its minimum goal several weeks ago.
On Wednesday the federal disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, said there were 13,435 new cases and more than 250 deaths and daily cases can be expected to reach 30,000 to 40,000 by Easter if the lockdown is eased at such a critical moment. In some hospitals the average age of patients is reportedly 20 years younger than during the second wave, following a large increase in infections among the 20 to 59 age group, and a growing number among children.
Critics have accused the government of sending out mixed messages, with some calls for the resignation of the health minister, Jens Spahn. Questions have been raised over whether it was correct to temporarily halt the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine if the benefits of continuing to use it outweigh the risks, and believe that to reinstate it will be hard if confidence is dented.
Karl Lauterbach, the health spokesman for the Social Democrats, and a trained medical doctor, called Spahn’s decision a “mistake”, saying the cases of thrombosis amounted to just 0.0005% of the total number who had been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca jab and due to the urgency of the crisis it would have been better to continue the vaccine campaign.