Spain widens use of AstraZeneca vaccine as infection rate hits "high risk" level

MADRID (Reuters) -Spain said on Wednesday it would extend the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to essential workers over 65 years old to include previously excluded groups, while the infection rate surpassed the level deemed a “high risk” for transmission.

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As measured over the preceding 14 days, the rate rose to 152 cases per 100,000 people from Tuesday’s 147, health ministry data showed, exceeding the 150-case threshold for the first time since March 5.

The cumulative tally of cases rose by 8,534 on Wednesday to 3.28 million, while the death toll climbed by 154 to 75,459.

Health Minister Carolina Darias told a news conference Spain would take delivery of 1 million doses of the shots on Thursday, and that the government was on track to hit a target of vaccinating 70% of the population this summer.

Shots made by the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker were previously destined for essential workers like police officers and teachers up to the age of 65, while vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are reserved for people over 80.

But that meant a small number of key workers over 65 were left out of the programme.

Along with a dozen other countries, Spain temporarily suspended the AstraZeneca shot in early March over concerns it caused a rare clotting disorder but resumed using it once the European Union drug regulator EMA gave its backing.

Approaches are now diverging across the 27-nation EU, with some countries lifting age limits altogether and Germany limiting use of the AstraZeneca shot to those over 60 years old.

Many people find the situation confusing.

“I don’t care what Germany thinks,” a retired civil servant who identified herself as Charo said outside Atletico Madrid’s Wanda football stadium, which has been converted into a mass vaccination centre.

“What I want is for scientists to tell us what the benefits and side-effects are. I want trustworthy information, which I have not found so far,” she said.

Having inoculated elderly nursing-home residents and their carers, as well as frontline health workers, Spain is now focusing on the elderly and other essential workers.

Authorities have administered 7.7 million doses and fully inoculated 2.64 million people.

Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Inti Landauro, Nathan Allen and Michael GoreEditing by Ingrid Melander, Andrei Khalip and Mark Heinrich