After battling with AstraZeneca over shipment delays, and even casting doubt over its Covid-19 jab’s efficacy, EU countries are seeing stocks of the company’s shots pile up — unused.
As of Friday, France had administered 7 per cent of the 2.5m doses of the two-injection vaccine it received since the first delivery in early February, according to health ministry data compiled by Covidtracker.fr. As of Thursday, Germany had given a little over one-fifth of the 1.45 million doses, about the same proportion as Italy, which has received over 1m doses. Spain has used just under a third of a total of 808,000 doses as of Friday.
The situation has prompted several European leaders to talk up the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in recent days, with one French health ministry official even calling for a “collective rehabilitation campaign” to improve its reputation.
German chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that there was “an acceptance problem with the AstraZeneca vaccine at the moment” that was slowing the jab’s rollout. In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper on Thursday, she urged people to keep an open mind to it: “All the authorities tell us that we can trust this vaccine.”
The tone is a change from only weeks ago when European politicians were engaged in an acrimonious battle with AstraZeneca over its deliveries and when French president Emmanuel Macron suggested the vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” on older individuals. Now that they have doses however, EU governments face a sceptical public, in addition to logistical challenges and restrictions of their own devising.
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 inoculated only 6.82 per 100 people by Friday, compared to 28.6 in the UK, 20.4 in the United States, and 91 in Israel, according to Our World in Data.
Chief among the reasons for the lower acceptance of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was a policy choice made by many countries to restrict its use for older people until more data on its efficacy became available. In France, that meant the shot is only currently being offered to people aged between 50 to 64 with comorbidities and healthcare workers, while Spain has advised it not be used on those older than 55 years old. Germany and Italy are offering the jab to everyone younger than 65.
Health experts say negative headlines have damaged the vaccine’s reputation, bolstering the perception that it is a lesser option to BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna jabs, which both which both rely on so-called mRNA technology and boast higher protection rates. A study suggesting the AstraZeneca vaccine was less effective against the variant that has emerged in South Africa caused healthcare workers’ unions in several European countries to demand that their members get the mRNA based vaccines instead.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca jab showed efficacy of between 62 and 70 per cent in clinical trials last year. That compares with over 90 per cent effectiveness for the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna jabs. But all of them offer nearly full protection against hospitalisation and deaths.
“I don’t have anything against the AstraZeneca vaccine,” said Jérôme Marty, who heads a French doctors’ union. “But healthcare workers are often exposed to high viral loads in the hospital so they need the most effective vaccines that we have.”
In France, which has for years had the world’s highest vaccine hesitancy, there were reports of hospital workers missing shifts and suffering strong 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 with the AstraZeneca shot since their immune systems mount a stronger response than older people, health experts say.
Weeks after the French president’s dismissive comments on the jab, France’s top vaccine adviser Alain Fischer has been extolling its virtues on television, social media and webinars for hospital staff.
“For reasons that I find profoundly unfair, this vaccine has gotten relatively bad press in France,” the paediatric immunologist told the press on Thursday. “It is effective. It is safe. It should be used without a second thought and without delay.”
Dr Fischer also referred to the results from a new study from Scotland, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, showing the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot lowered the chance of hospitalisation from four to six weeks after vaccination by 94 per cent after one shot. “If confirmed, these results would be excellent news”, he said and could lead France to expand the usage to those aged more than 65. Logistical problems in France have also meant doctors only started inoculating patients this week.
Spain is reviewing new data continuously to decide whether to change age restrictions on the jab, 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 has become a convert. “In view of the latest scientific studies, the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been proven,” he said after a virtual gathering of EU leaders. “If that’s the vaccine that’s offered to me, I will take it, of course.”