French doctors slam 'AstraZeneca bashing' as France enacts U-turn on jabs for over-65s

Henry Samuel
·6-min read
Emmanuel Macron was criticised by European leaders over his claims about the vaccine - BLOOMBERG
Emmanuel Macron was criticised by European leaders over his claims about the vaccine - BLOOMBERG

French doctors have blamed deep domestic scepticism of AstraZeneca on the “bad press” it has received, including criticism from Emmanuel Macron that it was “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly.

The indirect criticism of the French president, who was forced to say he would take the jab if necessary last week, came as Gallic health regulators said they would make the jab available for the over 65s.

Mr Macron fanned Gallic scepticism over the jab developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University in January hours before it received a green light from the European Medecines Agency by saying: “Everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older."

Since then, French reports of flu-like side-effects among dozens of health workers further tainted its image.

That contributed to a dearth of demand in France, where only 24 per cent of AstraZeneca stocks have been used, according to the health ministry.

That is well below a target set at 80-85 per cent and compares with 82 per cent for vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and 37 per cent for those made by Moderna.

"It is true that we are facing issues with AstraZeneca vaccines," said a health ministry official.

The scepticism prompted Jacques Battistoni, head of the MG France doctors' union to denounce the widespread "AstraZeneca bashing" that was causing many vials to go unused.

France’s vaccination coordinator, Alain Fischer, has also complained that the "bad press" surrounding the shot was "deeply unfair".

Watch: COVID-19 - France approves AstraZeneca vaccine for over-65s - as Angela Merkel urged to get jab

All vaccines combined, France has only injected three million people with a first dose and 1.6 million a second to date. The UK has given at least one dose to more than 21 million people. However, France has administered two injections to roughly twice as many citizens - preferring initially to target only the over 75s and health workers.

However, after talking down the AstraZeneca jab, the country has now abruptly changed its tune, with Mr Macron urging people to take it.

"If this is the vaccine I'm offered, obviously I would take it," he said after a European Council meeting on Friday.

On Monday, French health minister Olivier Veron said that the vaccine would now be made available to those between 65-75 with serious health risks.

The French U-turn came after the release of a recent study published in Scotland that showed the AstraZeneca shot lowered the chance of being hospitalised for four to six weeks by 94 per cent after one shot and was effective in older people.

A new study from Public Health England (PHE) suggests a single dose of the Pfizer or Oxford vaccine offers dramatic protection against hospital admission and severe disease in older people.

The new data on the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine has "vindicated" the UK's decision to roll it out to older age groups, England's deputy chief medical officer has said.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) had taken the view that it was "not immunologically plausible" the vaccine would work in younger age groups and not older ones.

The World Heath Organisation has also recommended the jab for over-65s.

In light of this, the French health minister said: “The higher health council now considers as of today that all three vaccines that we have in France have a remarkable efficacy to protect people against the risk of severe forms of Covid-19."

“As a result, I can announce that from now on people aged 50 and above who have conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or a history of cancer can be vaccinated with AstraZeneca, including those aged 65 to 74.”

The previous advice had been for the UK-Swedish company’s vaccine to be given only to people aged 50 to 64 with comorbidities and to healthcare workers. Those over 75 will continue to receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, he added.

It remains unclear whether France will also eat humble pie over previous criticism of the UK's decision to space out jabs.

Watch: COVID-19 - What EU leaders said about AstraZeneca vaccine - and the data forcing a rethink

Last month, France's Europe minister Clément Beaune slammed the practice, saying: "I don't think our public would accept that we take all those risks against the advice of our scientists."

However, the country's top health body now says there is sufficient evidence to space out AstraZeneca jabs by up to 12 weeks. The health ministry has not said whether it would heed the advice.

The French government has come under fierce criticism in recent weeks for a sluggish and inefficient vaccination rollout. Authorities are also battling the highest vaccine scepticism in the Western world. Around half of health workers in French care homes do not want to get a jab.

There are fears the country, which has a blanket 6pm to 6am curfew, may have to impose lockdowns in at least 20 departments in the coming days due to rising infection rates. Authorities are “seriously considering” weekend lockdowns in the Paris region.

On Monday, the daily death toll was 379 and 3,544 Covid patient were in intensive care with 25,430 people hospitalised. The incidence rate in the Paris area is now 322 per 100,000.

Schools remain open and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on Tuesday suggested that classes should take place outside in city squares and parks where possible - an idea the education ministry and unions said could be possible.

Mr Macron on Monday told the French to “hold tight for another four to six weeks”. On Tuesday, government spokesman Gabriel Attal insisted there was “light at the end of the tunnel with vaccination”, adding that this would be accelerated as pharmacies were to authorised to give people jabs.

The French change of tune on AstraZeneca came as Belgium's health council advised authorities to lift a ban on the vaccine for the over 55s on Tuesday.

Belgium had previously ruled out authorising the jab for the over 55s, blaming a lack of clinical data.

In Canada, the vaccine was authorised for people who are 18 and older by drug regulator on Friday but the regulator noted that available clinical trial data was too limited to reliably estimate how well the vaccine worked in people 65 and older.

But it also said "emerging real world evidence" in places that had already started using the vaccine suggested a potential benefit and no safety concerns.

Germany is under pressure to change its vaccination strategy after the country's top vaccine regulator acknowledged that advice against giving the AstraZeneca jab to over 65s had been flawed.

Read more: Thomas Kielinger: For Germans, Britain is now the grown-up