Gouveia e Melo in his role as coordinator of Portugal's vaccinations task force

Teachers lose out on programmed vaccines as Portugal suspends use of AstraZeneca 

Teachers and non-teaching staff heard this evening that plans to start inoculating them against Covid-19 this weekend have been put on hold due to widespread concerns over the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Authorities have been at pains to insist there is “no causal link between cases reported and the taking of the vaccine”-  but even so the issues involving people developing blood clots have to be fully investigated.

Rui Ivo, president of Portugal’s medicines authority Infarmed, told a press conference this evening that Portugal has decided to apply “the principle of precaution and public health” and follow other European countries in suspending the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

(Just today France, Spain and Germany decided to suspend use of AstraZeneca in the wake of similar decisions by Italy, Austria, Norway, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Denmark).

“The principal consequence of this pause (in Portugal) is the alteration (of the plan) that we had for pre-school and primary teachers and non-teaching staff this weekend”, vaccine task force coordinator Henrique Gouveia e Melo told reporters. “With this decision the plans have to be put on pause as well”.

In other words – on the basis that the vaccine will be eventually cleared by the European medicines authority – teachers and non-teaching staff will simply have to wait until that moment.

Health director Graça Freitas said none of the current stocks of AstraZeneca will go to waste. They are being stored at the temperatures required and will remain that way until the European (Medicines) Agency “tells us if the vaccine can be administered in safety, taking into account the risks and benefits”, she said.

So far 400,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine have been administered in Portugal with none of the clotting issues reported in other countries so far detected. 

The cases of two people who developed blood clots post-vaccine in Madeira (click here) were ‘distinct’ from the cases reported in other countries, it was explained – and both people are recovering.

The bottom line is that the adverse reactions flagged in other countries “are very serious”, said Ms Freitas – hence the decision for today’s about-turn which has changed schedules at health centres throughout the country.

In Lisbon, people due to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine tomorrow will now be being informed of the delay.

Roughly 200,000 doses are involved. They would have been going not only on teachers and non-teaching staff, said Gouveia e Melo, but on the Phase One priority group of 50-79 year olds with certain pathologies.

The vaccine coordinator appeared fairly relaxed about the sudden change – saying he still expects the country’s vaccine roll-out to go according to plan, with the current phase concluding in April.

The inference was that this ‘pause’ will probably be no more than two weeks long.

Graça Freitas stressed the importance of people “maintaining confidence in the vaccines and institutions”.

“The pause is only happening because of a mechanism of extreme security and precaution”, she said.

“If you have been vaccinated (with the AstraZeneca vaccine) stay calm”, Ms Freitas added. “These reactions are extremely rare and in our country similar phenomena have not been reported. 

“If you have a persistent feeling of discomfort, particularly if it is accompanied by bruising or cutaneous haemorrahges, do not hesitate to consult a doctor”.

Europe’s health ministers will be meeting via videoconference tomorrow (another event organised by the Portuguese EU presidency) and this situation and supply issues with AstraZeneca will be at the top of the agenda.

Meantime the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organisation continue to stress that their data “does not suggest that the AstraZeneca vaccine has caused the clots”. Both insist people “can continue to be immunised with this drug”.

The company itself says there is no reason for concerns with its vaccine, and that there have been less cases of thrombosis related to people who have received the vaccine than in the normal population.

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