Olivier Veran, the French health minister, said today that the jab will soon be made available to people over the age of 50 with underlying health issues that make them vulnerable to Covid.
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.
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.
France will soon recommend Astra-Zeneca’s Covid vaccine for the over-50s with underlying health conditions, flying in the face of comments Emmanuel Macron made last month when he called it ‘quasi-ineffective’ in older people
A graph showing the average number of vaccines administered to 100 people in European nations per day, up to March 2. The UK is well ahead of other major European countries and has one of the world’s fastest jabs roll-outs
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.’
How EU raised doubts over AstraZeneca jab… and what science says
French president Emmanuel Macron : Claimed that the jab was ‘quasi-ineffective’ among over-65s and said UK had taken a risk with quick approval
German vaccine committee: Was the first EU regulator to limit the jab to younger people, on January 28
Dutch Health Council: Refused to approve the vaccine for over-65s because ‘the immune system starts to function less well with increasing age’
Austrian health ministry: Said that ‘no confident statements are possible’ about efficacy in older people
French minister Clement Beaune : Said there were ‘doubts about the efficacy’ in over-65s
German newspaper Handelsblatt: Published a sensational but widely-debunked report claiming the jab had just 8% efficacy among older people
Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain and Poland: Also refused to approve the vaccine for over-65s
Italy and Belgium: Would not even give it to over-55s
And what the science says:
- Real-world data from Scotland shows one dose of AstraZeneca reducing hospitalisation risk by 94 per cent among the mainly older people who have had it
- Clinical trials last year showed 100 per cent of older adults generating the necessary antibodies
- Only 1 out of 341 volunteers aged over 65 caught Covid-19 after receiving the jab, and four separate trials showed the vaccine to be safe
- A separate Oxford study showed 76 per cent protection in the three months between the first and second doses
- The same study also shows a possible 67 per cent cut in transmission of the virus
Meanwhile, Alain Fischer, chairman of France’s vaccine strategy orientation council, said the country would ‘re-adjust our vaccine strategy’.
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.
Jonathan Van Tam, Britain’s deputy chief medical officer, issued a stinging rebuke to Europe’s vaccine-skeptics on Monday night when he said data on the AstraZeneca jab had ‘clearly vindicated’ the UK’s approach of making it widely available
This graph shows infection rates in six European countries. The UK (in red) was the problem child of Europe at the start of 2021 but has since seen cases plummet and is leading the continent in terms of vaccinations
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.
France has used only half its doses while 1.2million AstraZeneca shots are unused in Germany
France has used only around half the doses it has received since the EU roll-out began in late December, according to the website CovidTracker.fr.
More than 7.7million doses have been delivered since December 26, but only 3.97 million have found their way to patients, of which half are second doses.
It means that only 2.66million people have received any kind of injection at all, compared to 18.69million in the UK where second doses are being delayed.
Only 126,000 AstraZeneca doses have been handed out since the jab was approved last month.
Meanwhile in Germany, vaccine committee chair Prof Thomas Mertens said the country had a stockpile of 1.2million AstraZeneca jabs it was struggling to use up.
‘It is a problem, no doubt at the moment. We have about 1.4million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine in store and only about 240,000 have been given to people,’ he said.
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether his committee’s decision not to recommend the jab for under-65s was to blame for this, he admitted: ‘It may be part of the problem.’
He added: ‘Although we always stated that it had nothing to do with the safety of the vaccine – we never criticised the vaccine to be unsafe – we stated, and it’s correct, that the amount of data on this group of elderly people was not really great.
‘But I don’t think that was a major problem. The major problem was all the news that had been spread about the efficacy of the vaccine being much lower than the efficacy of the mRNA vaccines [Pfizer and Moderna].’
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.
Germany’s health minister and top public health official beg citizens to take Oxford vaccine – after Merkel said she won’t have it
Germany stepped up its efforts to persuade a reluctant public to take the Oxford vaccine this week as Angela Merkel‘s health minister said it was ‘strongly recommended’ and a top health official hailed ‘fantastic’ real-world results from Scotland.
Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s top diseases institute, welcomed the findings by Edinburgh-based researchers that one dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab slashed hospitalisations by 94 per cent after four weeks.
Health minister Jens Spahn said that ‘this vaccine is safe and effective, it protects’ as more than a million AstraZeneca doses delivered to Germany lie unused in storage after top EU figures questioned the efficacy of the shot.
German health minister Jens Spahn, pictured, said the AstraZeneca jab was ‘strongly recommended’ – but it is still not available to the most vulnerable
Spahn said the vaccine drive was gathering pace with record numbers of doses handed out on Wednesday and Thursday, but it is still moving far more slowly than in Britain which has handed out three times as many jabs to a smaller population.
And despite the findings in Scotland, German regulators have yet to open up the jab to over-65s – with Angela Merkel saying she could not take it as an example to the country because she is too old at 66.
Germany’s 16 states have taken delivery of more than 1.4million AstraZeneca doses, but only 315,000 of these have been given to patients so far with some essential workers refusing to take the jab.
By contrast, 5.3million shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab – co-developed by a German firm – have been deployed out of 6.7million doses delivered so far.
The reluctance to take AstraZeneca shots piles further pressure on health officials already struggling to ramp up jabs because of the EU’s chaotic procurement.
Health minister Spahn acknowledged that ‘too much vaccine is sitting in the fridge’, after Merkel said the AstraZeneca vaccine had an ‘acceptance problem’.
There have also been reports of side-effects leading hospital staff and other front-line workers to call in sick. Regulators and scientists say the vaccine is safe.
‘We strongly recommend it: this vaccine is safe and effective, it protects,’ Spahn told a news conference on Friday.
‘It protects oneself and others, like both other vaccines,’ he added, referring to the Pfizer and Moderna products.