Community pharmacists working at Covid-19 vaccination sites across England have warned that the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe is leading to an increase in patient concern, no-shows and cancellations.

Several pharmacists raised concerns that despite reassurance from the UK medicines regulator, the media reports are already having an impact on vaccination services here.

Countries including Spain, Germany, France and Italy have temporarily suspended use of the vaccine pending a review of the evidence, following reports of blood clots in those who had it.

However, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said that a link between the vaccine and the reported blood clots has not been confirmed and has urged people to still get their jab.

Atulkumar Patel, the superintendent pharmacist at Lincoln Pharmacy in Tower Hamlets, east London, told the Pharmacist yesterday (17 March) that the vaccine rollout had been going ‘very smoothly’ right up until the media reports on the temporary suspension of the vaccine.

‘Over the last week we have had an increase in people just not turning up, they are not even bothering to cancel appointments,’ he said.

‘Some of the patients who do visit the pharmacy to get their vaccine are uneasy and concerned over the safety of the vaccine.’

He added: ‘It has caused a huge amount of additional work for us. We spend a lot of time trying to persuade patients that the risk of blood clots is not yet a medically proven fact.’

Meanwhile, Omar Hamed, the operational lead at Everest Pharmacy, in Whalley Range, Manchester, said over the last couple of days the pharmacy has received a number of calls from people wanting to cancel their first or second AstraZeneca Covid vaccination.

‘There is a lot of fear out there now, people are very wary about the AstraZeneca vaccine. We’ve probably had about 15 cancellations per day over the last week,’ he said.

At the moment, the clinic is vaccinating around 400 patients per day, so there are not a lot of people cancelling their slots when you compare it to that number, Mr Hamed added, but ‘there is still a fair few and I feel like it might still rise in the days and weeks to come’.

Mr Hamed said he there needed to be more clarity and data available to patients to reassure them that the vaccine is safe.

‘I think more accessible concrete data which demonstrates the vaccine's safety would help. It would also mean fewer people turn to the news and social media to find out what is happening - which does seem to be scaring a lot of people,’ he said.

According to Mr Hamed, it his patients from the younger cohorts who appear to have been most affected by the European countries’ suspension of the vaccine.

‘I think this is because they tend to have better access to online news and social media platforms. The elderly populations are just desperate for some more normality, so most of them will still happily take it,' he explained.

Reassuring patients

Hassan Khan, superintendent pharmacist and owner of Cullimore Chemists in Edgware, north London, said that a small number of patients had called and asked if they should still have their jab.

‘We’re having a few people call up with concerns and some hesitancy, I then try and address their concerns and they usually go ahead with it,’ he said.

Similarly, Pete Horrocks, superintendent pharmacist of the 70-branch Knights Pharmacy group, said he and his team have experienced a ‘handful’ of patients call up wanting to cancel their bookings.

‘We are dealing with a lot of queries regarding it, but mostly they have resulted in us alleviating any concerns and patients proceeding with the vaccination, he said.

‘It is taking up a little more time to go through our clinical assessment and reassure patients.’

Vaccines under review ‘all the time’

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) – which is leading the review – has said its investigation into the thromboembolic events is ongoing, but the body ‘currently remains of the view’ that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine in preventing Covid outweigh the risks of side effects.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is also reviewing the data but it has maintained the same view on the benefits of the vaccine and recommended that vaccinations continue.

In a statement published on Sunday (14 March), Dr Phil Bryan, MHRA vaccines safety lead also said the benefits of the vaccine in preventing Covid-19 ‘far outweigh’ the risks of side effects.

He added: ‘People should go and get their Covid-19 vaccine when asked to do so. It is still the case that it has not been confirmed that the reported blood clots were caused by the Covid-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca. Blood clots can occur naturally and are not uncommon.

‘Our role is to continually monitor safety during widespread use of a vaccine. We have in place a proactive strategy to do this.'

Speaking on Sky News yesterday (17 March), Matt Hancock, the health and care secretary, urged people in the UK to continue to get the jab.

‘The AZ vaccine is safe and we know that over 10 million people have had it over in this country,’ he said.

‘We keep the effects of these vaccines under review all the time and we know the AZ vaccine is saving lives in the UK right now, so if you get the call, get the jab.’