PARIS – Europe’s reluctance to distribute millions of doses of AstraZeneca PLC’s Covid-19 vaccine is under pressure after the French government authorized the use of the injection for some older people.
The French government announced that it would allow people with comorbidities between the ages of 65 and 74 to receive the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca. New data from the UK on Monday showed that only one dose of the vaccine was effective in preventing illness and death among adults aged 70 and over who had received it.
France’s move was a sharp change from a month ago, when President Emmanuel Macron told reporters that the vaccine was nearly ineffective for people over 65, without providing evidence to back up his claim. The comments helped sow doubts across the European Union that still linger.
Germany, Italy and other large European countries continue to restrict older people from receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, citing a lack of data on its efficacy in that age group. And France’s restrictions remain in place for older people without comorbidities.
The result: Doses of the company’s vaccine have piled up as European governments refuse to distribute the injections to the very young until older cohorts and priority people, such as medical personnel, have received a vaccine.
France has administered just a quarter of the 1.6 million shots it started receiving from AstraZeneca last month, according to French officials. Italy has used only 26% of its supply, while Spain has administered 43% of its injections.
In Germany, which has used less than a third of its nearly 1.5 million AstraZeneca doses, some states like Bavaria and Saxony have decided to donate doses to neighboring countries severely affected by the virus rather than letting them languish in storage.
“There are still too many vaccines in the refrigerators,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said last week.
Restrictions on the administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine risk undermining an important point in the continent’s plans to accelerate a rollout that has been slow compared to the US and UK. The so-called mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna. Inc.
and the Pfizer alliance Inc.
and BioNTech SE have a limited supply in Europe. They also have storage requirements that are colder than the AstraZeneca vaccine, making them more difficult to administer in pharmacies and other accessible locations.
In March, France plans to administer a total of six million injections, more than half of them coming from AstraZeneca. About three million people, less than 5% of the French population, have so far received a single dose of any vaccine.
In the UK, where the AstraZeneca vaccine has been widely implemented, more than 20 million people, or 30% of its population, have received at least one injection of the vaccine. That has allowed the government to draw up step-by-step plans for an almost complete reopening of its economy by June 21. Hospitalizations and deaths among the elderly, the first to be vaccinated, have begun to decline significantly faster than among the unvaccinated. population.
The government of Canada recommended on Monday that the Oxford-AstraZeneca injection be administered to adults regardless of age, contrary to the recommendation of a national vaccine advisory committee that the previous Monday had cited insufficient data on the effectiveness of the injection in old people. Canadian government officials said they considered the vaccine to be safe and effective for adults of all ages.
A trial for the vaccine is expected shortly after late-stage human trials conclude in the US AstraZeneca has said it expects results from those trials, with around 30,000 volunteers in the US, Chile and Peru. , by the end of this month, which means an American verdict on the vaccine could come as early as April.
Governments across Europe now face the challenge of overcoming public skepticism towards the AstraZeneca vaccine. That has become more ingrained in recent weeks, as many younger healthcare workers have publicly rejected the company’s vaccine due to concerns about efficacy and reports of side effects.
Alain Fischer, an immunologist who oversees France’s vaccination campaign, publicly defended the vaccine’s efficacy and safety last week in an effort to turn the tide of public opinion.
“I find it profoundly unfair,” Dr. Fischer said. “This vaccine has a relatively bad press in France.”
AstraZeneca’s European launch stumbled the moment it rolled out of the doors. On January 29, the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s drug regulator, endorsed the use of the vaccine in people over the age of 18 and warned that the injection had not been sufficiently tested in people over the age of 55.
That same day, Macron met with a group of reporters inside the Elysee Palace who questioned whether he had been wrong to endorse the EU’s strategy of sourcing vaccine supplies collectively rather than just like the UK.
Macron, a former EU champion, replied: “The real problem with AstraZeneca is that it has not worked as we expected. Because we have had very little information. “So far, he said,” everything seems to indicate that it is almost ineffective for people over 65, some say 60 years or more. “
Amid the confusion, national health authorities across the continent began issuing their own guidelines. Spain cut off access to anyone over 55 years of age. Italy restricted people over 55 from receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying it needed more data for that age group, before coming under public pressure and placing the restriction at age 65 and up.
Germany’s standing committee on vaccination, an expert panel that issues guidance on vaccination, went against the EMA’s guidance and recommended the vaccine only for people under 65 years of age. The committee said it based the decision on the lack of evidence data on the vaccine’s efficacy in the elderly, not because of any doubts about its overall quality.
This week, the German committee said it would reconsider its original recommendation and possibly open the vaccine for general use. The head of the committee, Thomas Mertens, said older people could expect to get the vaccine soon. The initial guidance was not intended to criticize the vaccine itself, he said, adding: “Somehow the whole thing didn’t turn out so well.”
—Jenny Strasburg in London and Giovanni Legorano in Rome contributed to this article.
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