Canada has expanded its rollout of Oxford-AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine, reversing an earlier recommendation that it not to be given to seniors, even as more European nations moved to suspend its use.
Citing recent real-world evidence from the United Kingdom, a Canadian expert advisory panel on Tuesday updated its recommendation on the vaccine to now include people over age 65.
The recommendation by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) can be used by leaders of Canada's provinces and territories to decide how best to deploy the vaccine. The nation's health regulator had authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine for widespread use in late February, though until now the NACI did not recommend it for people 65 and older due to what it called an insufficient amount of evidence for that age group.
The two-dose vaccine is authorized in Canada for patients older than 18.
Unlike in Canada, the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine has ground to a standstill in recent days in virtually all of western Europe. France, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Italy and more than a dozen other countries have paused rollout of the shot, calling it a precautionary measure following concerns that it could be linked to blood clots.
Those decisions go against the advice of global health agencies and Europe's medicines regulator, and they have prompted myriad questions among people who have had or are in line to get the shot.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that the AstraZeneca vaccine's benefits outweigh its risks and vaccinations should continue.
"Vaccination against COVID-19 will not reduce illness or deaths from other causes," WHO said. "Thromboembolic (clotting) events are known to occur frequently. Venous thromboembolism is the third most common cardiovascular disease globally."
While Canadian public health officials say they are keeping a close eye on the situation in Europe and awaiting more information from its regulators, they say there is no evidence that the risk of taking the vaccine outweighs the benefits.
"Based on the information that Health Canada has reviewed, the number of cases of thromboembolic adverse events at this point in time are lower than the rates that would be expected in the population that has been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine," said Marc Berthiaume, a director at Health Canada, during a Tuesday technical briefing in Ottawa.
However, NACI also recommended that mRNA vaccines -- like those made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna -- still be prioritized for vulnerable Canadians.
"While all available vaccines in Canada are safe and effective, NACI still recommends that in the context of limited vaccine supply, initial doses of mRNA vaccines should be prioritized for those at highest risk of severe illness and death and highest risk of exposure to COVID-19," reads the statement released Tuesday.