After EU countries battled AstraZeneca over shipping delays and even expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the Covid-19 sting, stocks of the company’s shots are building up – unused.
By Friday, France had given 16 percent of the 1.1 million two-shot doses of the vaccine it had received since the first delivery in early February, according to the Health Ministry. By Thursday, Germany had given just over a fifth of the 1.45 million doses, roughly the same as Italy, which had received more than 1 million doses. Spain took just under a third of a total of 808,000 doses on Friday.
The situation has led several European leaders to speak about the vaccine against Oxford / AstraZeneca in the last few days. An official from the French Ministry of Health even called for a “collective rehabilitation campaign” to improve his reputation.
Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that “there was currently an acceptance problem with the AstraZeneca vaccine” that slowed the introduction of the sting. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Thursday, she urged people to be open about it: “All the authorities tell us that we can trust this vaccine.”
The tone is a change from a few weeks ago when European politicians were embroiled in a fierce battle with AstraZeneca over its supplies and when French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the vaccine was “virtually ineffective” in the elderly. However, now that they have cans, EU governments are facing a skeptical public on top of the logistical challenges and constraints they have developed themselves.
Health experts have warned that the continent’s already sluggish rollout could be further hampered if uptake of the Anglo-Swedish company’s vaccine is not improved. The EU had vaccinated just 6.82 per 100 people as of Friday, compared to 28.6 in the UK, 20.4 in the US and 91 in Israel, according to Our World in Data.
One of the main reasons for the lower acceptance of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine was the political decision taken by many countries to limit its use in the elderly until more data became available on its effectiveness. In France, this has meant that the shot will only be offered to people between the ages of 50 and 64 with comorbidities and healthcare workers, while Spain has advised not to use it on people over 55 years of age. Germany and Italy offer the push to everyone under 65 years of age.
Health experts say negative headlines damaged the vaccine’s reputation and increased the perception that BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna jabs, both based on what is known as mRNA technology and have higher protection rates, are a lesser option. A study suggesting that the AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective against the variant found in South Africa led health workers unions in several European countries to demand that their members receive the mRNA-based vaccines instead.
The Oxford / AstraZeneca push showed an effectiveness of between 62 and 70 percent in clinical studies last year. This corresponds to an effectiveness of more than 90 percent for the BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna joints. But all of them offer almost complete protection from hospitalization and death.
“I have nothing against the AstraZeneca vaccine,” said Jérôme Marty, who heads a French medical union. “But healthcare workers are often exposed to high viral loads in the hospital, so they need the most effective vaccines we have.”
In France, which has had the highest vaccine reluctance in the world for years, hospital workers have been reported to have missed shifts after being vaccinated with the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine and experience severe side effects such as fever and muscle pain. It’s often younger people who experience such side effects with the AstraZeneca shot, as their immune systems are more responsive than older people, say health experts.
Weeks after the French President’s dismissive comments on the sting, France’s best vaccination advisor, Dr. Alain Fischer extolled his virtues on television, social media and in webinars for hospital staff.
“For reasons that I find deeply unfair, this vaccine has received relatively poor press in France,” the pediatric immunologist told the press on Thursday. “It’s effective. It is save. It should be used without a second thought or delay. ”
Fischer also referred to the results of a new study from Scotland that has not yet been peer-reviewed. She showed that the Oxford / AstraZeneca shot reduced the likelihood of hospitalization from four to six weeks after vaccination by 94 percent after a shot. “If this were confirmed, these results would be excellent news,” he said, and could lead France to extend its use to those over 65 years of age. Logistical problems in France have also resulted in doctors only starting vaccinating patients this week.
Spain is constantly reviewing new data to decide whether to change the age restrictions on the stitch. Health Ministry official Silvia Calzón said on Thursday: “We are waiting for there to be more evidence so that we can make a decision with all the guarantees.”
Even Macron became a convert. “The latest scientific studies have shown the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said after a virtual meeting of EU leaders. “If that’s the vaccine I’m offered, of course I’ll take it.”
This story has been modified to use data from the Ministry of Health on the French vaccination campaign instead of data compiled by the Covidtracker.fr website.