After fighting with AstraZeneca shipping delays, and even casting doubt on the effectiveness of its Covid-19 jab, EU countries are seeing stocks of company shots piling up – unused.
On Friday, France had administered 7% of the 2.5 million doses of the vaccine with two injections it had received since the first delivery in early February, according to data from the Ministry of Health compiled by Covidtracker.fr. As of Thursday, Germany had administered just over a fifth of 1.45 million doses, roughly the same proportion as Italy, which received more than a million doses. Spain used just under a third of a total of 808,000 doses on Friday.
The situation prompted several European leaders to denounce the Oxford /AstraZeneca vaccine in recent days, an official from the French health ministry has even called for a “collective rehabilitation campaign” to improve his reputation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that there was “a acceptance problem with the AstraZeneca vaccine for now ”which was slowing the deployment of the jab. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper on Thursday, she urged people to keep an open mind: “All authorities tell us we can trust this vaccine.”
The tone is a change from just a few weeks ago, when European politicians were engaged in a battle with AstraZeneca during its deliveries and when French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the vaccine was “near ineffective” on the elderly. Now that they have doses however, EU governments face a skeptical public, in addition to logistical challenges and restrictions of their own design.
Health experts have warned that the continent’s already slow rollout could be further hampered if uptake of the Anglo-Swedish society’s vaccine is not improved. The EU had inoculated just 6.82 per 100 people on Friday, compared to 28.6 in the UK, 20.4 in the US and 91 in Israel, according to Our World in Data.
The main reason for the low acceptance of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine has been the political choice made by many countries to restrict its use in the elderly until more data on its effectiveness become available. In France, this meant that the blow is only currently offered to people aged 50 to 64 with co-morbidities and to health workers, while Spain advised not to use it in people over 55. Germany and Italy offers the jab to everyone under 65.
Health experts say negative headlines have damaged the vaccine’s reputation, reinforcing the perception that it is a lesser option for the BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna jabs, both of which rely on so-called d technology. ‘MRNA and offer higher rates of protection. A study suggesting that the AstraZeneca vaccine was less efficient Against the variant that has emerged in South Africa has led healthcare workers unions in several European countries to demand that their members receive mRNA-based vaccines instead.
The Oxford / AstraZeneca jab has shown efficacy of between 62 and 70 percent in clinical trials last year. This compares to an efficiency of over 90% for the BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna jabs. But all of them offer almost complete protection against hospitalization and death.
“I have nothing against the AstraZeneca vaccine,” said Jérôme Marty, who heads a French union of doctors. “But health workers are often exposed to high viral loads in hospital, so they need the most effective vaccines we have.”
In France, which has for years the highest reluctance to vaccinate, there have been reports of hospital staff going out of work and suffering significant side effects such as fever and muscle pain after being inoculated with the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine. It is often younger people who experience such side effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine, as their immune systems respond more strongly than older people, according to health experts.
Weeks after the French president’s contemptuous comments on the vaccine, France’s leading vaccine adviser Alain Fischer has touted its virtues on television, social media and in webinars for hospital staff.
“For reasons that I find deeply unfair, this vaccine received bad press in France,” the pediatric immunologist told reporters on Thursday. “It’s effective. It’s certain. It should be used without hesitation and without delay. ”
Dr Fischer also discussed the results of a new study of Scotland, which has not yet been peer reviewed, showing that the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization four to six weeks after vaccination by 94% after a single shot. “If they were confirmed, these results would be excellent news,” he said and could lead France to extend the use to people over 65. Logistics problems in France also meant that doctors only started vaccinating patients this week.
Spain is constantly examining new data to decide whether or not to change the age restrictions on the jab, Silvia Calzón, head of the Ministry of Health, said Thursday: “We are waiting for there to be more evidence in order to to be able to take a decision with all the guarantees. “
Even Macron has become a convert. “In view of the latest scientific studies, the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been proven,” he said after a virtual gathering of European leaders. “If this is the vaccine that is offered to me, I will take it, of course.