Covid-19: French vaccine appointments go unclaimed, reviving debate on who should qualify

·6-min read

Some Covid-19 vaccination centres in France have been offering time slots but are struggling to find takers. Faced with this situation, several elected officials and members of the scientific community are calling for more people to be eligible for vaccination. For now, however, the government is keeping its current rules – only those 55 and over qualify – in place.

The numbers are impressive: 6,591 vaccination time slots were available in Rouen in France’s northwest on Wednesday according to the website Vite Ma Dose, which lists all available appointments at vaccination centres and pharmacies. The number of slots hit 11,700 in Marseille and was almost quadruple that at 43,000 in Lyon. In total, the platform listed 273,163 available vaccination slots in France on Wednesday.

While France wants to accelerate its vaccination campaign – the country passed the symbolic mark of 20 million injections on Tuesday – some people who have been granted access to a jab now seem reluctant to make an appointment.

Internet users have been sharing screenshots of dozens of unused time slots on social networks in recent days. Under the hashtag #LesJeunesVeulentLeVaccin (#YouthWantTheVaccine), many are also calling for a relaxation of the criteria for access to vaccination so that young people, in particular, can receive their first dose.

Currently in France, only people over 55 years old; people over 50 with a comorbidity (certified by a doctor’s note); people of any age with one of the high-risk conditions listed by the government; and workers in certain high-risk professions can be vaccinated.

"We have an epidemic that currently causes 300 deaths per day on average," epidemiologist Catherine Hill told FRANCE 24. "It is therefore necessary to vaccinate the population as soon as possible.”

"It was logical, at the beginning, to vaccinate the people most at risk," she said. “But if, from now on, we have available doses that are not being administered to priority recipients, then we might as well administer them to younger people.”

‘It is urgent to expand vaccination’

The gigantic “vaccinodrome” at the Stade de France just north of Paris is among the vaccination centres that are struggling to find takers, a somewhat surreal situation as the incidence rate of Covid-19 in Seine-Saint-Denis, the working-class département (administrative territory) that includes the stadium, is 550 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, according to data published by France’s National Health Agency.

The population there is younger, on average, than it is nationwide, said Stéphane Troussel, the council chairman of Seine-Saint-Denis. "With the vaccinodromes multiplying in Île-de-France (the Paris region) and the allocation of additional doses, it is urgent to expand vaccination, in particular to frontline workers in the most affected areas with the youngest populations," he said on Twitter.

Troussel’s top health deputy said that all doses are currently finding takers in an interview on France Info Tuesday, but admitted “drawing from the waiting lists more and more often" even if it that means vaccinating people who are not currently within the government’s approved categories.

Troussel's call to expand vaccination is shared by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who wants to relax age limits for vaccine recipients. "It's a scandal that doses are not being used when so many people want to be vaccinated. It is time to be more flexible and pragmatic," she told France Info.

Vincent Maréchal, a professor of virology at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, fears that the current waiting period will discourage young people from getting vaccinated when their time comes. "We are in a country where there is a real mistrust of the vaccine," he told FRANCE 24. "And yet we have people ready to get vaccinated who cannot. We don't want this situation to result in a flurry of discouraged people in a few weeks.”

"We know that vaccinating helps protect against severe forms of Covid-19," Maréchal said. "There is also increasing evidence that vaccination can limit the circulation of the virus. But for that, we need to vaccinate en masse.”

No lack of demand

Stanislas Niox-Chateau, the head of Doctolib, an online medical booking platform, tried to sound reassuring at a Wednesday press conference. "The vaccination campaign against Covid-19 does not suffer from a lack of demand,” he said. “At least, in the vaccination centres offering BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines."

Niox-Chateau doesn’t see unfilled vaccination time slots as resulting from a shortage of willing recipients, but rather the increased number of doses delivered to France each week. It is perfectly normal that with more doses there will be more appointments, he said.

"Every day, Doctolib offers about 250,000 appointments. Every day, these appointments are taken," he said, specifying that the waiting time between making an appointment and getting the jab is currently nine days on average.

Niox-Chateau explained, however, that he has no data on people who make same-day appointments, especially at the last minute. "Doctolib connects individuals with vaccination centres," after which the centres themselves decide whether to accept off-target people or not.

"Moreover, it would be very difficult to accelerate vaccination with BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna," Niox-Chateau added, noting the very high usage rates for the two vaccines. According to France’s Regional Health Directorate, the utilisation rate of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine was 91 percent, up from 89 percent on March 30, and 82 percent for the Moderna vaccine against 65 percent a month before.

"Vaccine supplies are improving every day," said virologist Maréchal. "If the demand is there, why not extend vaccination now? Why not, for example, open up vaccination but create a system so that priority people remain priority?"

Rather than calling for an expansion of France’s vaccination programme, Niox-Chateau said that there are still many slots available for the AstraZeneca jab with Paris doctors and pharmacists.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is administered at a rate of 45,000 doses per day when "we could reach 100,000 to 150,000", he said. The rate of use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, shunned by part of the French population in the wake of reports of blood clotting in a small number of recipients, was at only 73 percent on April 25.

The potential for more daily jabs should first benefit the "7 million French people over 60 who still don’t have an appointment”, he said.

France’s Health Minister Olivier Véran acknowledged Tuesday that a number of large vaccination centres had open slots and called on those eligible for vaccination "to rush to their phone or computer to look if the centre closest to them has openings".

“An expansion of the vaccination programme" would be "premature" at this stage, Prime Minister Jean Castex said after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday. But he did not close the door on an eventual expansion of the eligible categories if it is confirmed that available appointments were “not being honored”.

This article has been translated from the original in French.