EU member states are starting to administer Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine after Europe’s drug regulator this week backed the single-dose shot, with several expected to impose age restrictions, as with the AstraZeneca jab.
Spain’s regional health authorities began using the shot on Thursday for people aged 70 to 79, two days after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced a possible link to a rare clotting disorder but stressed the shot’s benefits outweighed the risks.
Nearly 150,000 doses arrived in Spain last week but were stored in a warehouse as the vaccine’s barely-begun European rollout was paused while agencies reviewed eight cases of the rare brain blood clots, with a low blood platelet count, in the US.
The EMA said on Tuesday the events, which were very similar to those reported in a small number of people who had the AstraZeneca shot, should be considered a “very rare side effect” of the jab. A warning will be added to the vaccine’s labels, it said.
As it did with AstraZeneca, however, the EMA has left it up to EU member states to decide how to use the J&J vaccine “according to their national situations and needs”. Both shots use the same viral vector technology.
The Netherlands has said it will begin using the J&J shot next week, while Germany’s health ministry said it would be administered in state vaccination centres “as soon as possible” and by family doctors from early May.
The country’s vaccine committee has not yet announced whether it will limit the shot’s use to a particular age group. Germany recommends AstraZeneca’s vaccine for the over-60s, but allows it for younger people if they have been informed of the risk.
France, which has received 200,000 doses of the J&J shot, will begin using them from Saturday, a government spokesman said, adding that there was “no question” of the country abandoning either J&J or AstraZeneca.
The country’s health authority, HAS, earlier this month approved the J&J vaccine for use in people aged 55 and over, the same age limit it had imposed on the AstraZeneca shot, and is expected to reaffirm that restriction by Friday.
Italy’s health ministry has recommended the J&J vaccine be used for people over the age of 60, Greece will start administering it from 5 May, and Denmark – which has stopped using AstraZeneca – will announce its decision next week.
Iceland, which has restricted the use of AstraZeneca to the over-60s but is expected to lower the limit soon, has approved the J&J vaccine with no age restrictions “for the time being”, and will also begin administering it next week.
Experts have cautioned that the intense scrutiny of the AstraZeneca and now the J&J shots may knock public confidence in the two vaccines, and governments are eager to prevent any reticence as the EU’s early slow rollout accelerates.
J&J has contracted to deliver 55m shots of its vaccine to the EU by the end of June, roughly a quarter of the 400m doses of four different vaccines that the bloc is scheduled to receive in the second quarter.
The European commission has repeatedly said member states will have received enough doses to meet the target of fully vaccinating 70% of the adult population – a level epidemiologists consider to be sufficient for herd immunity – by mid-July.
The US, where the J&J rollout was also suspended temporarily on 13 April, is expected to announce on Friday its decision on when, and under what conditions, it will resume.