U-Turn: France to Start Using The British AstraZeneca Vaccine

Published March 2nd, 2021 - 11:40 GMT
French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron visits a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination center at the Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie (France's local health insurance funds - CPAM) in Bobigny near Paris as part of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in France, on March 1, 2021. BENOIT TESSIER / POOL / AFP
France had previously restricted use of the AstraZeneca jab to those aged under 50 and healthcare workers.

France will start giving Britain's AstraZeneca vaccine to over-65s in an humiliating U-turn for President Macron after he personally cast doubt on its effectiveness.

Olivier Veran, the French health minister, said yesterday that the jab will soon be made available to people age between 50 and 75 with underlying health issues that make them vulnerable to Covid.

The move is intended as a 'first step' towards making the vaccine available to all over-65s when the country's vaccines agency updates its advice in a report that is due to be published this week. 

The decision will pile pressure on other European countries which defied global health bodies by restricting the jab's use in older people - including the likes of Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Austria - to reverse their own policies.

It comes after a slew of real-world data showed the AstraZeneca jab reduces hospitalisations in over-65s by more than 80 per cent and it may be slightly more effective than the European Pfizer jab.

The data flies in the face of remarks Macron made last month, when he said the vaccine was 'quasi-ineffective' in older people.   

France had previously restricted use of the AstraZeneca jab to those aged under 50 and healthcare workers.

However, the law allowed those aged 50 to 65 who had an underlying condition to get the Astra jab. All those aged over 75 had to be vaccinated using the Pfizer jab, even if they were in perfect health.

That created an ambiguous group, aged 65-75, who were too old to get the Astra jab but were not in the mandatory Pfizer group.

Mr Veran cleared up the ambiguity on Monday night by confirming that all those aged 50 to 75 with an underlying condition could have the Astra jab.

The move is expected to be a 'first step' towards recommending the Astra vaccine to everyone aged over 65, as the country's regulator said it is preparing to change its guidance - though the final ruling has not yet been published. 

Europe has mounted one of the world's slowest vaccine roll-outs, plagued by bureaucratic red tape, supply issues and meddling by regulators that means it is unlikely to see an end to lockdowns any time soon. 

In an attempt to speed up the roll-out, health bodies are now softening their stance on the AstraZeneca jab which has been widely-used in neighbouring Britain - where Covid cases and deaths are now falling rapidly. 

Thomas Mertens, the head of Germany's vaccine committee, said on Sunday that it would would 'very soon' update its recommendation on the AstraZeneca jab.

In a frank admission on German television station ZDF, he said: 'The whole thing has somehow gone wrong.'

Meanwhile, Alain Fischer, chairman of France's vaccine strategy orientation council, said the country would 're-adjust our vaccine strategy'. 

In a sign of growing frustration with Europe's vaccine shambles, Denmark and Austria confirmed on Tuesday that they will both look outside of the Union for Covid vaccines in the future.

Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz said that he will visit Israel on Thursday along with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to discuss future cooperation on vaccines. Israel is running the world's fastest vaccination programme.

'We must prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent solely on the EU in the production of second-generation vaccines,' Kurz said.

England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer last night took a swipe at EU efforts to rubbish the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine and said a new study showing just one shot offers dramatic protection against severe disease in older people 'vindicated' Britain's approach.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam suggested that 'non-adoption' by 'many countries' in the over-65s of their populations was not scientific as he claimed that it was 'not immunologically plausible' that the life-saving jab would work in the 18-55 bracket and then not work in older age groups.

He told a Downing Street press conference that the data by Public Health England (PHE) published yesterday, which found the vaccine more than 80 per cent effective at preventing hospital admission up to four weeks after the first dose, 'clearly vindicated' Britain's approach to mass inoculation.

Asked about EU vaccine scepticism by Guardian health editor Sarah Boseley, Professor Van-Tam said: 'That was driven by the fact that there were relatively small amounts of data on the over-65s in the clinical trials available at that point in time for the AZ vaccine.

'Our technical advisory committee - the JCVI - took a view which I share that it was not immunologically plausible that the vaccine would work in the age range 18 to 55 years of age, which is a lot of where the data ran out, and then not work in those older age groups.'

He added: 'We took a view that it almost certainly would work. The PHE data have clearly vindicated that approach today and I'm not here to criticise other countries but to say that in time the data emerging from our programme will speak for itself and that other countries will doubtless be very interested in it.'

Responding to his remarks, Health Secretary Matt Hancock quipped: 'Very diplomatic' as he told the public: 'I hope that right round the world people study this data and understand what it means - getting the AstraZeneca jab and Pfizer jab could save your life'.

The most-recent vaccine data compiled by the European Center for Disease Control shows the UK vaccinated an average of 0.57 people our of every 100 per day last week - well ahead of the European average of 0.19 and France's average of 0.18.

Britain's fast-paced jabs roll-out means that 30 per cent of its population have now had at least one dose of vaccine - compared to a European average of 7.4 per cent.

Germany is lagging slightly behind that average with 7.3 per cent of its population jabbed, but France is much further behind with just 6.7 per cent inoculated.

After initially scaremongering about the AstraZeneca jab, both France and Germany were forced to launch a PR campaign to convince people to take the vaccine last week amid news that millions of doses are sitting un-used.

Steffen Seibert, Angela Merkel's chief spokesman, said last week that the British-made jab is 'both safe and highly effective' and will 'save lives' as he joined the country's health minister urging people to take it.

He spoke after it emerged Germans have been skipping vaccination appointments when they learned they would be given the jab. 

Meanwhile Health Minister Jens Spahn suggesting drafting in the army to give the shots to soldiers and police officers in an attempt to drive inoculation rates up. 

In France, health workers have also been refusing the vaccine after President Macron's comments during the heated row over its effectiveness.

The European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine for all adults, but both France and Germany ruled that it should not be given to the over-65s.

After initially questioning its effectiveness, President Macron later said he would take the vaccine.

Angela Merkel caused further confusion when in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German chancellor said last week: 'I am 66 years old and I do not belong to the group recommended for AstraZeneca.'

Though some interpreted this as a rejection of the vaccine, other commentators claim the chancellor was merely suggesting that others should get the vaccine first.

Meanwhile EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said that she herself would take it - despite her furious row with the drugmaker last month over missing shipments to the EU.

That struggle is set to continue into the spring with as many as 90million doses missing from AstraZeneca shipments in the second quarter of 2021.

An EU official involved in talks with the firm says AstraZeneca has warned that it may deliver only half of its promised 180million doses from April to June, having slowed supplies in January because of delays at a Belgian factory.

The new shortage could hamper the EU's ability to meet its target of vaccinating 70 per cent of adults by summer - with Britain promising to offer one dose to 100 per cent by July 31.

The EU supply shortage is seen as one of the main reasons for a widely-criticised vaccine roll-out which is lagging far behind that in Britain.

While the UK has handed out 27.0 doses per 100 people, the EU is lagging behind on 6.2 and has not significantly sped up its progress in recent weeks.

Von der Leyen defended her policies by pointing out that the EU had handed out 27milion doses in total compared to 17million in Britain - but the bloc of 27 countries has a population more than six times larger.

She also noted that Italy had given double-doses to more people than Britain, but it has handed out far fewer doses overall.

Catching up to Britain will be made even harder if AstraZeneca shortfalls continue into the early summer, as an EU official told Reuters.

Von der Leyen told the Augsburger Allgemeine that 'I would take the AstraZeneca vaccine without a second thought, just like Moderna's and BioNTech/Pfizer's products,'

But she also continued to voice doubts about the UK's strategy of delaying second doses - a move approved by Britain's chief medical officers - as she claimed that the EU was 'catching up' in the vaccine race.

AstraZeneca is producing vaccines at two plants in the UK, one in Belgium and one in the Netherlands, but is not exporting its British-made jabs under its contract with UK ministers - although it has offered the EU doses made in India and the US.

The official said AstraZeneca planned to deliver about 40million doses in the first quarter, less than half the 90million shots it was supposed to supply.

It was also due to deliver 30 million doses in the last quarter of 2020 but did not supply any shots last year as its vaccine had yet to be approved by the EU.

All told, AstraZeneca's total supply to the EU could be about 130 million doses by the end of June, well below the 300 million it committed to deliver to the bloc by then.

AstraZeneca did not deny the EU official's claims, but said it was striving to increase productivity in order to meet its 180million target.

'We are hopeful that we will be able to bring our deliveries closer in line with the advance purchase agreement,' an AstraZeneca spokesman said.

Later in the day, the firm added that its 'most recent Q2 forecast... aims to deliver in line with its contract with the European Commission'.

'At this stage AstraZeneca is working to increase productivity in its EU supply chain and to continue to make use of its global capability in order to achieve delivery of 180 million doses to the EU in the second quarter,' it said.

A European Commission spokesman declined to comment on confidential talks but said the EU should have enough shots even if the AstraZeneca targets are not met.

An EU regulator approved the AstraZeneca jab in late January but the ruling was overshadowed by a furious political row over the delayed shipments.

After AstraZeneca warned of shortfalls but continued to supply Britain in full, the EU published its contract with the firm and claimed to have cast-iron commitments.

Brussels also imposed export controls on jab shipments leaving the bloc, but was forced into retreat after initially saying they would apply to Northern Ireland.

But AstraZeneca's CEO blamed the delays on the fact that the EU had not signed a contract until three months after Britain had tied up a deal last year.

AstraZeneca is not exporting vaccines made in the UK, in line with its separate contract with the British government.

But AstraZeneca has told the EU it could provide more doses from its global supply chain, including from India and the United States, an EU official said last week.

AstraZeneca is now forecast to make up its shortfalls by the end of September, according to a German health ministry document.

German officials expect to receive 34million doses in the third quarter, taking the country to its full entitlement of 56million out of the EU's 300million doses.

This article has been adapted from its original source.     

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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