France’s chaotic vaccine roll-out took a bizarre twist today as the country resumed using AstraZeneca jabs – but said only people aged 55 and over should get them.
It marks a complete U-turn from France’s old position which was that the jab should be limited to those aged under 65 because there was not enough data to prove it was effective in older people.
Now, bafflingly, the country says younger people should avoid getting the jab to minimise the risk of life-threatening blood clots – even after Europe’s regulators ruled on Thursday that the risk is vanishingly small and the jab is safe in all ages.
France announced its latest move just hours before 55-year-old Prime Minister Jean Castex was injected with the shot in an attempt to prove to his countrymen it is safe, after weeks of scaremongering from his own government.
France’s 64-year-old ambassador to the UK was also immunized using the AstraZeneca vaccine today, inadvertently undermining her own government’s message by tweeting: ‘Done. Safe.’
France has now restricted AstraZeneca’s vaccine in one form or another for as long as citizens have been eligible to receive it – despite a rising third wave of cases driven by the more-infectious UK variant of the virus.
Several regions, including Paris, will now be plunged back into lockdown starting at midnight tonight after hospitals overflowed.
A similar picture is emerging across the whole of Europe, where a majority of countries are seeing cases rise as a third wave of infections takes hold while governments dither and delay getting vaccines to people.
Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, warned bluntly today that Europe’s vaccine restrictions will cost ‘thousands’ of lives.
Jean Castex, the 55-year-old prime minister of France, winces as he receives the AstraZeneca vaccine hours after health regulators in the country ruled that anyone younger than him should not get it at all
France’s ambassador in the UK, Catherine Colonna, 65, had the Oxford jab on the NHS today and praised Britain’s vaccine roll-out by saying that her injection was ‘Done. Safely’
The AstraZeneca chaos has contributed to France having a slow rate of vaccinations compared to the UK, with only 5.6million people given a first dose compared to 25.7million in Britain
Most nations – including the likes of Germany, France, Italy and Spain – which had restricted the jab due to fears over clots have today restarted their use.
But the wait will drag on for citizens of Denmark, Sweden and Norway as their governments insisted they will carry out their own investigations into the clots –
France’s new recommendation is based on the fact that the blood clots which led to the jab’s suspension in much of Europe had occurred only in people under 55.
EU regulators gave their definitive verdict on Thursday by saying that the vaccine was ‘safe and effective’, and did not recommend any age-related restrictions.
The safety panel at the European Medicines Agency said there was no increased risk of blood clots linked to the vaccine.
But French regulators now claim there is a ‘possible increased risk’ of thrombosis among under-55s, meaning younger people will not be given the jab.
It marks the third change to France’s vaccine policies in quick succession amid a chaotic roll-out lagging way behind Britain’s in the global league table.
On February 2, France approved the AstraZeneca vaccine but only for under-65s, amid concerns about limited data on older people in clinical trials.
Macron poured fuel on the fire by claiming the jab was ‘quasi-ineffective’ in what was seen as an act of post-Brexit ill-will amid an angry row between the EU and AstraZeneca.
Real-world data from England and Scotland subsequently showed that the AstraZeneca jab was highly effective at stopping severe illness in older people.
Emmanuel Macron, pictured, has come under fire at home and abroad after presiding over a chaotic vaccine roll-out and a third wave of the epidemic in France
People wait to get vaccinated on the French island of Ouessant on Friday with jabs coming too slowly to stave off a third wave of Covid-19
On March 2, France changed tack and said that people under 75 with existing health problems could get the jab, while still blocking it for its oldest citizens.
Then, on Monday, France joined the tide of EU countries blocking the jab altogether over sporadic reports of blood clots among millions of people given a dose.
Many of those countries including Germany and Italy have since announced they will resume the AstraZeneca campaign in full after the EMA’s ruling on Thursday.
But France is set to continue limiting access to the jab, even as Castex tries to rally public support by taking it himself.
France’s failure to produce its own vaccine has caused political hand-wringing in a country with a proud history of intellectual and scientific achievements.
Emmanuel Macron has previously said that he would take the AstraZeneca shot if offered, but as a 43-year-old he would not be eligible under the new recommendation.
Dominique Le Guludec, head of the French health regulator HAS, said blood clots in those who had received the vaccine were ‘very rare’ but also ‘serious.’
France’s infection rate has reached its highest levels since a November lockdown, prompting Macron’s government to impose new restrictions on 21million people
Passengers pack into the Gare Montparnasse in Paris today as people flee the French capital hours before new lockdown measures take effect for a third of France’s population
She said that while waiting for additional information, those under 55 should get vaccinated with Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson products.
In France, out of 1.4 million AstraZeneca doses administered, cases were seen in a 51-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman, she said.
EMA chief Emer Cooke said on Thursday that the watchdog had seen a small number of cases but that the overall risk was no higher than in the general population.
She warned that ‘we still cannot rule out definitively a link between these cases and the vaccine’, but the EMA says the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.
The EMA had recommended adding a warning to product information with the AstraZeneca shot.
The latest vaccine chaos comes as Parisians piled onto trains on Friday hours before the capital and a third of the country is plunged into a new lockdown.
Trains heading out of Paris were fully booked on Friday with platforms packed at the Gare Montparnasse as 21million people brace for the new restrictions.
Castex announced the new measures last night amid a third wave of infections which has thrown Paris hospitals into crisis, with vaccines coming too slowly to protect large chunks of the population.