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WHO insists AstraZeneca vaccine safe as jab faces new setbacks

The World Health Organization said Friday there was no reason to stop using AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine after several countries suspended the rollout over blood clot fears and as the EU added severe allergies to the list of possible side effects.

The WHO, which said its vaccines advisory committee was examining the safety data coming in, stressed that no causal link had been established between the AstraZeneca vaccine and clotting.

"AstraZeneca is an excellent vaccine, as are the other vaccines that are being used," WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters in Geneva.

"Yes, we should continue using the AstraZeneca vaccine," she added, stressing that any concerns over safety must be investigated.

UK-based AstraZeneca insisted its jab was safe, adding there is "no evidence" of higher blood clot risks from it.

The UN health agency in Geneva also said that after the injection of millions of coronavirus doses from all vaccines around the world, no deaths had yet been attributed to a Covid-19 jab.

Denmark, Norway and Iceland paused the use of the AstraZeneca jab as a precaution after isolated reports of recipients developing blood clots.

Italy and Austria have banned the use of shots from separate batches of AstraZeneca, and Thailand and Bulgaria said this week they would delay the rollout of the shot.

But several other countries, including Australia, said they would continue their rollouts as they had found no reason to alter course. Canada also said there was no evidence the jab causes adverse reactions.

And in a fresh hit, the EU's drug regulator said severe allergies should be added to the possible side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine after likely links were found to a number of cases in Britain.

- Third wave in Italy -

Despite hopes that vaccines will pave the way to a return to normal, hard-hit Italy was once again eyeing heavy restrictions, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi warning the country was facing "a new wave" of infections.

Schools, restaurants, shops and museums are expected to close from Monday in the majority of regions, after Italy recorded almost 26,000 new Covid-19 cases and another 373 deaths on Thursday.

And Disneyland Paris, Europe's biggest tourist attraction, said Friday it will not be able to reopen as planned on April 2 because of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis with infections remaining stubbornly high in France.

Despite the setbacks, US President Joe Biden offered hope to his country, the worst-affected in the world.

The leader vowed a return to some kind of normality by July 4, marking the national holiday as his target for "independence" from the virus.

After a shaky start, the US has ramped up its vaccination programme, following the advice of scientists who say jabs are the only way out of a pandemic that has killed 2.6 million people around the world.

- Fight not over -

"This fight is far from over," Biden said in his first televised primetime address as president, delivering an emotional tribute to the more than 530,000 Americans who have died from Covid-19.

He said Americans could overcome the virus if they worked together and followed health experts' guidelines on wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

The United States is among the leading nations in terms of vaccines administered, but progress in other countries has been patchy.

After falling behind in its immunisation effort, the EU is now fighting hard to accelerate its vaccine push and pressed AstraZeneca again to meet its production obligations.

The EU approved the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Thursday, which is stored at higher temperatures than competitors and is easier to distribute.

And French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi on Friday announced the launch of human trials of its second Covid-19 vaccine, with its first still in the testing phase after having trailed in development.