Public Health

EU tries to rally help for unpopular AstraZeneca shot

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) takes photos with his smartphone from a document from German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) during an EU summit in Brussels on July 20, 2020.

JOHN THYS | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON – European officials are coming under increasing pressure to lift restrictions on who can receive the AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus vaccine and gather support for the shot.

On Monday, France made a U-turn on previous guidelines on who can get the vaccine, now recommending the AstraZeneca shot to anyone between 65 and 74 years old with pre-existing health problems. It had originally said the vaccine was only suitable for children under 65.

Italy, Sweden and Poland have similar age-restricting guidelines on who can get the AstraZeneca shot, but France’s move has raised expectations that they too could follow suit and offer the sting to older age groups.

A renowned immunologist in Germany earlier this week urged his country to change its stance, echoing the comments of other health experts in the country. In an interview with the BBC, Carsten Watzl, head of the German Society for Immunology, asked Chancellor Angela Merkel to broadcast the vaccine live on television to show that it was safe.

Watzl’s comments come amid tensions over the slow adoption of vaccines in the EU and increasing reluctance to take the AstraZeneca shot. In addition, parts of Europe are struggling to stave off a third wave of infections, largely caused by the spread of infectious variants, which makes vaccine uptake more urgent.

German criticism

The German vaccination committee has indicated that it is reviewing its previous guidelines and could issue an update shortly. The chairman of the committee, Thomas Mertens, told ZDF on Friday that it was “possible” that the vaccine could also be approved for people over 65 years of age.

He also defended the committee from criticism that it was too critical of the AstraZeneca vaccine, reporting that thousands of doses were not used in Germany and beyond in Europe due to public concern (and misunderstanding) about it.

“We never criticized the vaccine, we only criticized the lack of data for the age group over 65,” said Mertens. However, he admitted that the public news about the vaccine “went somehow wrong”.

Prominent health experts in France have also denounced what is known as “AstraZeneca bashing,” and French Health Minister Olivier Veran went so far as to show the recording live on television.

What went wrong?

The European Medicines Agency, the European Medicines Agency, approved the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant and Oxford University in January, but health authorities in France and Germany, including Europe, only approved the vaccine for children under 65. There wasn’t enough evidence to prove the vaccine’s effectiveness in the older age group.

That hesitation has translated into a lackluster reception of the shot by the public. The AFP news agency reported Monday that France had only administered 273,000 AstraZeneca doses out of 1.7 million received in late February, citing figures from the health ministry. Last week, the German Ministry of Health announced it had only administered 15% of the available Oxford shots, Reuters reported.

The public mood was not bolstered by somewhat ambivalent comments from some senior European officials.

For example, French President Emmanuel Macron was quoted as saying to journalists in January that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “virtually effective” for those over 65, and that 66-year-old Merkel has suggested she was too old to have the shot Contrary to what data and experts suggest, the vaccine is safe and effective for those over 65.

The stance of France and Germany seemed to ignore the EMA guidelines that data showed the vaccine is effective for anyone over 65, the primary target for vaccines with higher risk factors of Covid-19 that are associated with age.

Since EMA approval, increasing numbers of clinical studies and real-world data affecting older age groups have shown that AstraZeneca-Oxford University’s vaccine is highly effective at preventing Covid-19 infection, hospitalizations and deaths.

It has also been shown to reduce the transmission of the virus, and the UK’s decision to postpone the second dose of the vaccine to give more people initial protection has also been shown to be effective. The UK has now vaccinated more than 20 million people with a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. According to official information, Germany has so far vaccinated a little more than 6.3 million people (4.2 million of them with a first dose). France has given almost 3 million people at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the latest data on Sunday.

Oxford Vaccine Group’s director Andrew Pollard said Tuesday that real-world data from the UK should be used to make decisions in other countries in Europe.

When asked if other countries should see real data from Public Health England, Pollard said, “I think the scientific committees in each of these countries will be doing just that in the coming days,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” . Program.

“The strength of the evidence we see now … all of this is being pulled from scientific committees in different countries and I am sure it will help support their decisions,” he added.

Correction: This story has been changed to correct the French recommendations on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

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