'Deeply unfair': France and Germany struggle to sell AstraZeneca vaccine safety
Already facing a daunting Covid vaccination challenge, French and German authorities are fighting to convince more people that a jab from the pharma giant AstraZeneca is just as effective as others.
Stocks of the vaccines from the British-Swedish firm are going unused in both countries, depriving officials of a crucial tool to help end a pandemic that has been a social and economic calamity on a scale not seen since World War II.
Only 273,000 AstraZeneca doses have been administered in France out of 1.7 million received as of end-February, according to health ministry figures.
In France the AstraZeneca jab has been used for health workers since February 8th, but only became available from GPs from February 28th. The GP rollout is currently reserved for the 50-64-year-old age group who have underlying health conditions, although the AstraZeneca jab is expected to be used in a rollout via pharmacies in March.
Several French hospitals have either paused or slowed their AstraZeneca vaccine rollout for staff as temporary but severe side effects were causing major logistical problems as large numbers of staff needed time off work to recover.
Medical regulators in France and Germany have only licenced the vaccine for use in the under 65s, fanning fears over its effectiveness compared to the two others approved for Europe, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
Jacques Battistoni, head of the MG France doctors' union, last week denounced the widespread "AstraZeneca bashing" that was causing many vials to go unused.
Health Minister Olivier Véran, himself a doctor, tried to dispel the doubts by getting the vaccine live on TV.
And the country's vaccination coordinator, Alain Fischer, complained last week that the "bad press" surrounding the shot was "deeply unfair".
Even President Emmanuel Macron didn't do any favours when he described the AstraZeneca jab as "quasi-ineffective for people over 65" - just hours before the European Medicines Agency gave it the green light for use in age age groups.
And on Monday Macron made his first visit to a Covid vaccination centre.
Several other European countries including Poland and Sweden have also only licenced the vaccine for use in the under 65s, citing concern about a lack of test data for older people, while Switzerland and the USA have not licenced it for use at all.
'Every day counts'
In Germany as well, calls are growing to relax the vaccination priority list to make sure no AstraZeneca shots go to waste.
By February 23rd, 1.45 million doses had been delivered to Germany, of which only 240,000 had been injected.
The controversy has contributed to the government's decision to move teachers and childcare workers from priority group three to group two.
But some regional leaders are urging Germany to go further still, with Bavarian prime minister Markus Söder on Sunday saying "not a single AstraZeneca dose should be left over or thrown out".
"Before that happens: vaccinate anyone who wants it," he told the Bild am Sonntag daily. "Every day counts."
The leader of Baden-Württemberg state, Winfried Kretschmann, said Germany could not afford to have vaccines going unused because some of those entitled to it are snubbing it.
"In that case, we should loosen our strict regulations and vaccinate people even if it's not their turn yet under the priority guidelines," Kretschmann told the Welt am Sonntag daily.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany's 16 regional leaders are meeting on Wednesday to discuss the next steps in the fight against the pandemic.
Merkel herself praised the AstraZeneca shot as "a vaccine that can be trusted" in an interview last week and pleaded with Germans not to pick and choose their vaccines.
When asked if she would lead by example and take the AstraZeneca vaccine, Merkel replied that she was not eligible for this particular jab given that she was 66 years old.
The question is sure to re-emerge however if Germany's vaccine commission does decide to recommend the jab for those aged 65 and over.
The STIKO commission "will very soon publish a new updated recommendation" after a study showed it to be effective for the elderly, its head Thomas Mertens said last Friday.