Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has announced it’s removing its Covid-19 vaccine worldwide.

But why is this coronavirus jab being discontinued?

FactCheck takes a look.

Why is the AstraZeneca Covid jab being discontinued?

AstraZeneca said on 7 May that it has started to withdraw its Covid vaccine worldwide.

This comes after applying to withdraw its European Union marketing authorisation – which is the approval to market a medicine in member states – on 5 March.

On 7 May, the European Medicines Agency issued a notice that the vaccine is no longer authorised for use.

The pharmaceutical company said: “As multiple, variant Covid-19 vaccines have since been developed there is a surplus of available updated vaccines.” Basically, other vaccines are more effective against the versions of Covid that are most common now – and demand for Covid jabs overall has fallen.

The statement also said: “According to independent estimates, over 6.5 million lives were saved in the first year of use alone and over 3bn doses were supplied globally.”

Some countries have already stopped supplying the vaccine, including Australia, where it has not been available for use since March 2023.

How common were the side effects of the AstraZeneca jab?

The AstraZeneca vaccine – which was renamed as Vaxzevria in 2021 – had, like all vaccines, side effects.

As well as common side effects such as nausea and joint pain, it was linked to a rare but serious side effect called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia, or TTS.

TTS is a very rare syndrome which occurs when a person has blood clots (thrombosis) together with a low platelet count (thrombocytopenia).

Blood clots can reduce normal blood flow in an affected blood vessel, and thrombocytopenia is a condition where there aren’t enough platelets in the blood.

Platelets help the blood to clot which then stops you from bleeding excessively, for example, if you cut yourself.

The side effect was found to have occurred in about two to three people per 100,000 who were vaccinated with the Vaxzevria vaccine.

The UK government’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said in November 2023 that TTS “has been observed very rarely following vaccination with Vaxzevria”.

Up to 23 November 2022, the MHRA had received “Yellow Card” reports from doctors of 445 cases of blood clots with low platelet counts in the UK following an AstraZeneca Covid vaccine.

The overall case fatality rate was 18 per cent with 81 deaths, six of which occurred after the second dose.

What do we know about the safety of other Covid vaccines?

The Pfizer jab is also associated with a very rare side effect (reported in 1 out of every 10,000 people) of inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or inflammation of the lining outside the heart (pericarditis).

Like almost any medical intervention, vaccines carry the risk of side effects. The question for scientists and clinicians is whether the benefits of the treatment outweigh the risks.

At the start of the pandemic, Covid was so widespread and immunity so low that the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risk of rare side effects for almost every age group. As we reported in 2021, the chances of developing severe complications from Covid itself are much higher than that of potential complications from a Covid vaccination.

As Covid rates have fallen and more people have acquired immunity through vaccination and exposure to infection, the calculation has changed.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the government on vaccine use, now says that a booster Covid jab (made by Pfizer or Moderna) should be offered to adults over 75, residents in a care home for older adults, and anyone aged six months or over who is immunocompromised.

(Image Credit: Mustasinur Rahman Alvi/Shutterstock)