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COVID-19

AstraZeneca benefits outweigh risks, EMA says as EU orders 10 million more Pfizer doses

The EU's medicines regulator said Tuesday it was "firmly convinced" the benefits of AstraZeneca's vaccine outweigh potential risks, insisting there was no evidence linking it to blood clots after several nations suspended the shot over health fears. It came as Brussels sealed a deal for 10 million more Pfizer doses.

AstraZeneca benefits outweigh risks, EMA says as EU orders 10 million more Pfizer doses
This file illustration picture shows vials of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine and a figurine taken in a studio Paris on March 11, 2021. Joel Saget/AFP

The suspensions have provoked intense debate over whether it was prudent to put AstraZeneca inoculations on hold just as vaccination campaigns were beginning to gather pace in many countries.

Experts at both the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency met Tuesday to discuss the vaccine, with the European organisation expected to publish conclusions Thursday.

While millions of doses of the vaccine developed with Oxford University have been administered, small numbers of people have developed blood clots, prompting countries including the European Union’s three largest nations – Germany, France and Italy – to suspend injections.

But the EMA insisted that countries should continue using the vaccine.

“We are still firmly convinced that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid-19 with its associated risk of hospitalisation and death outweigh the risk of these side effects,” EMA chief Emer Cooke said Tuesday.

“At present there is no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions,” she added, echoing the WHO and drugmaker AstraZeneca itself.

Cooke noted however that the regulator was “looking at adverse events associated with all vaccines”.

France and Italy welcomed the news.

“Today’s preliminary statements from EMA are encouraging,” said a joint statement from French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Tuesday vowed he would be vaccinated “very quickly” with the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to give the public confidence in the jab if it is ruled as safe by the EU medicines agency.

In France, health authorities said Tuesday they are investigating a new coronavirus variant found in the western Brittany region. The variant appears to be more difficult for nasal tests to detect, however for now it does not appear to be more dangerous or contagious.

Covid, not jab, to blame?

In Britain, which has administered more than 11 million AstraZeneca doses, experts see no evidence of more frequent blood clots among the inoculated.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in The Times newspaper that the shot “is safe and works extremely well”.

French immunologist Alain Fischer, who heads a government vaccination advisory board, said a higher than normal number of pulmonary embolisms – blood clots in the lungs – had caused alarm at the weekend.

“There were a few very unusual and troubling cases which justify this pause and the analysis,” Fischer told France Inter radio.

But one British scientist has argued that Covid-19 itself – and not the vaccine – could be to blame, as it was known to cause such problems.

The “very likely explanation of at least some of the clotting disorders seen are a result of Covid-19 rather than the vaccine”, said Stephen Evans, professor of pharmaco-epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“Hence, even if there were a problem, acknowledged to be very rare with the AZ vaccine, the overall benefit would be so much greater than any speculative harm,” he added.

Coronavirus deaths across Europe meanwhile passed the 900,000 mark on Tuesday, making it the worst-hit global region in absolute terms, according to an AFP tally.

10 million Pfizer doses

More than 382 million doses of vaccine have been administered globally, the vast majority in wealthier countries while many poorer nations have yet to receive a single jab.

AstraZeneca’s shot, among the cheapest available, was billed as the vaccine of choice for poorer nations and the clot reports have had an impact beyond Europe.

Other countries that have halted or delayed the rollout include Indonesia, Venezuela, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands – with Cyprus, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Sweden the latest to join the list.

The pandemic spurred unprecedented efforts to develop vaccines, with a number of successful options now available.

Rollouts have been hampered by export controls, bitter diplomatic disputes and production issues – in addition to the AstraZeneca suspension.

But on Tuesday Brussels sealed a deal to step up deliveries of 10 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, now scheduled to arrive in the EU before July rather than in the third quarter.

And a new agreement for Germany’s IDT Biologika to help produce the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine would offer Europe greater certainty, Germany’s economy minister said.

The developers of Russia’s successful Sputnik V vaccine also said they had reached production agreements in key European countries.

Member comments

  1. Unbelievable. The country has never been sicker, and what does the government do? Take AstraZeneca out of its arsenal to fight the virus. And NOT ONE WORD about what we, with jab #1, are supposed to do about jab #2. It’s insanity.

  2. It’s all political, there has been no mention of the deaths and blood clots that have happened with the Pfizer?

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ECONOMY

From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

Austria’s lucrative winter season has already been hit by pandemic restrictions for the past two years. But this year there is also record inflation, staff shortages and an energy crisis to deal with.

From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria's winter season

The winter season in Austria is a big driver of the country’s economy and has been hit hard by Covid-19 restrictions for the past two winters.

But this year the industry faces an even bigger crisis – a combination of rising inflation, concerns over energy supplies, staff shortages and the pandemic (because it’s not over yet).

We took a closer look to find out how these issues could impact the industry and what we could expect from this year’s winter season in Austria.

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Inflation

Winter sports is a big guzzler of energy to operate ski lifts, apres ski venues and snow making machines. 

This means the industry is in a vulnerable position as energy prices rise, with some resort operators already confirming they will have to pass on some costs to customers.

Johann Roth, Managing Director at Präbichl in Styria, said that energy costs at the resort have tripled and admitted he is concerned about the coming winter season.

Roth told the Kronen Zeitung: “Of course we will have to increase the ticket prices, and to an extent that has never been seen in recent years.”

READ MORE: Cost of living: Why are restaurants getting more expensive in Austria?

At Planai ski resort in Schladming, Styria, Director Georg Bliem said they aim to keep the day ticket price under €70, but has also set up an energy task force to find cost-saving measures for this year. 

Suggestions for Planai include narrower slopes, reduced snowmaking capabilities, shorter cable car operating times and even a delayed start to the season.

Electricity costs at Planaibahn (the resort’s ski lift and gondola operator) were already at €3 million before the current energy crisis, according to the Kronen Zeitung.

Then there are hospitality businesses and hotels at ski resorts that are also being hit by rising costs.

As a result, the Kurier reports that room prices in overnight accommodation could increase by a further 15 percent in winter, and many people will no longer be able to afford skiing holidays.

Heating may be an issue in winter as the energy crisis looms (Photo by Achudh Krishna on Unsplash)

Energy

Rising prices are just one element of the energy crisis as there are fears that Austria will not have enough gas for the coming winter season – mostly due to the war in Ukraine.

In March, Austria activated the early warning system – which is the first level of a three-step emergency plan – for the country’s gas supply. If it reaches step three (emergency level), energy control measures will be put in place across the country.

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How this would impact ski resorts is unknown, but at the emergency level, households, essential industries and infrastructure would be prioritised for energy.

So far, there is no indication that step two (alert level) will be activated and the European Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory recently confirmed that Austria’s gas storage capacity was 60 percent full

Austria’s goal is to reach 80 percent capacity by November 1st in order to have a safety reserve.

However, Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler already appealed to businesses and households in July to start saving energy where possible.

Staff shortages

Ever since Austria (and Europe) started opening up after Covid-19 lockdowns, the hospitality and tourism industries have been struggling to find staff.

In fact, shortly before the start of the summer season in Austria, there were 30,000 open job vacancies in the tourism sector. And the Wiener Zeitung recently reported on how restaurants in Vienna are struggling to keep up with customer demand due to staff shortages. 

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The issue is even being discussed in parliament and it has already been made easier for seasonal workers in Austria to access residency through changes to the Red-White-Red card. 

Now, there are expectations of similar staff shortages for the winter season, which could cause further stress for ski resort operators.

Covid-19

Back in July, it was reported that the federal government was working on a Covid-19 contingency plan to get the country through another autumn and winter.

It envisages four scenarios – numbered from the best to the worst case. In the best case scenario, Austrians can live free of any pandemic rules. In the second best scenario, the situation will remain as it is (find out more about Austria’s latest Covid-19 rules here).

In scenario three, if new variants lead to more severe illness, the mask requirement will be expanded and more testing will be carried out.

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There could even be night-time curfews, entry tests and restrictions on private meetings. In addition, major events could be stopped from taking place and nightclubs closed.

Scenario four, the worst case scenario, would mean vaccination no longer offered protection and hospitals became overwhelmed, leading to severe restrictions on people’s social lives.

From what we’ve seen over the past two winters, scenarios three and four would likely impact winter sports operations. But to what degree would depend on the severity of the situation.

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