Norway to lend unused AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Sweden, Iceland

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A box of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is seen as syringes are filled at the Skane University Hospital vaccination centre in Malmo

OSLO (Reuters) - Norway will lend 216,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine it has in stock to Sweden and Iceland, the country's health ministry said on Thursday, enabling the two Nordic neighbours to speed up their inoculation campaigns.

Norway on March 11 suspended the rollout of the vaccine after a small number of younger people were hospitalised for a combination of blood clots, bleeding and a low count of platelets, some of whom later died.

Sweden and Iceland will be able to receive the doses from Norway for as long as the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout is suspended.

"We will get the doses we lend back as soon as we ask for it," Health Minister Bent Hoeie said in a statement.

Norway has twice postponed its decision on whether to restart AstraZeneca injections, and is now awaiting a report from a government-appointed commission due on May 10.

If a decision is made to permanently exclude the AstraZeneca vaccine from Norway's campaign, the doses it has ordered can be donated to other countries in cooperation with the European Union, the health ministry said.

Sweden continues to use the AstraZeneca vaccine for certain age groups, in line with many other European nations, reserving it for those who are 65 years and older for whom the benefits are seen to clearly outweigh the risks.

And while Swedish infection rates and hospitalisations are on the rise, Norway is currently seeing a decline in new COVID-19 cases.

"Sweden is in a demanding situation with regards to infections and has also given significant support to Norway in our work to secure access to vaccines," Hoeie said.

European Union outsider Norway's participation in the EU's vaccination purchase programme, signed last year, was organised in collaboration with Sweden.

Of the total, 200,000 doses will go to Sweden and the remaining 16,000 to Iceland, which has a much smaller population. The relevant doses are set to expire in June and July.

(Reporting by Gwladys Fouche and Terje Solsvik; Editing by Victoria Klesty and Alex Richardson)