Italy's Draghi urges no vaccine let up, signals AstraZeneca U-turn

FILE PHOTO: A woman receives the AstraZeneca vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a drive-through site, in Milan, Italy, March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Mario Draghi urged Italians on Friday to get fully vaccinated against coronavirus, acknowledging that a government decision to ban AstraZeneca doses for people aged over 60 had created confusion.

"It is fundamental that people get vaccinated," Draghi told a hastily called news conference, signalling a U-turn on the block on AstraZeneca. "The worst thing you could do is not get vaccinated, or just get one vaccine shot," he said.

The government abruptly restricted the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine last week following the death of a teenager who had developed blood clots after receiving a first dose.

Italy's medicine agency AIFA said on Monday that those aged under 60 who had received a first dose of AstraZeneca could be given a different vaccine when they got their second dose.

However, officials have said the vaccination campaign saw a slight dip in numbers over the past week, with some people cancelling appointments, apparently worried about mixing shots.

Draghi, who is 73, said he himself would be getting a different type of vaccine next week after tests showed that he had developed a low number of antibodies when he had received an initial AstraZeneca shot in March.

"Mixing doses is safe," he said, but health authorities would be flexible.

"If someone is under 60 years old ... and has been offered a different jab, but does not want it for whatever reason, this person is free to take the second dose of AstraZeneca so long as they have a doctor's approval and informed consent," he said.

As of Thursday night, 25.3% of Italians were fully vaccinated with a further 26.3% awaiting their second jab.

Draghi said the challenge was to track down all those aged 50 and over who had not yet received any vaccination. "These are the people who get ill, get seriously ill and need to be vaccinated."

Italy has suffered the second highest number of COVID deaths in Europe after Britain, but infection rates have fallen sharply in recent weeks and the government said on Friday that almost all restrictions within the country would be lifted by Monday.

Although wearing face masks outdoors remains compulsory, Draghi said he would seek medical advice at the weekend on when this could be lifted.

Despite the recent drop in both cases and deaths, there is concern over the highly contagious Delta variant, first identified in India and now spreading fast in Britain.

Looking to limit exposure to the variant, the health ministry said on Friday it would reinstate mandatory quarantine and testing for everyone arriving from Britain from Monday.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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