France admits it needs to repair the image of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine after struggling to convince people to take it

  • France is embarking on an effort to persuade its people to accept the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Regulators say the vaccine is safe and effective, but its performance data has prompted some doubts.
  • France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, was among those to disparage the vaccine in the past.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

France is working to fix the disastrous image of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the country, after many in the country proved reluctant to take it.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the French health ministry said at a press conference that “we need to get into a rehabilitation dynamic for this vaccine,” making explicit a problem that had existed for weeks.

The country is relying on the AstraZeneca shot to accelerate its sluggish vaccination campaign. As of February 23, France had distributed about 3.8 millions doses of vaccines.

According to Our World in Data, that makes France 11th worldwide, behind the UK, US, Brazil, and Turkey.

From Thursday, 29,000 family doctors will be allowed to deliver the AstraZeneca vaccine in their office, in the hope of speeding up the rollout.

Some doctors say they anticipate having to convince their patients to take it. Rumors that the vaccine does not work well are circulating in the country, as reported by broadcaster France TV info.

Speaking on Wednesday to French trade publication Le Quotidien du Medecin, Prof. Alain Fischer, France’s vaccine strategy lead, emphasized that the vaccine is “not inferior” to jabs like those made by Pfizer and Moderna.

The efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been questioned after confusion about its trial results have eroded people’s confidence in the shot.

President Emmanuel Macron was among those to disparage the jab, saying in late January that the vaccine seemed “quasi-ineffective” in people over 65.

Insider contacted the French health ministry for comment but did not hear back by time of publication.

The European Medicines Agency reports that the jab has a 60% efficacy against COVID-19 in clinical trials, lower than its Pfizer and AstraZeneca equivalents. 

The AstraZeneca jab is only given to those under 65 in France, with priority given to health workers.

Like other countries in Europe such as Germany, French regulators said there was too little data for how the vaccine works on over-65s, so did not authorize its use on them.

However, real-world data is suggesting that the jab is proving effective, which could even convince the French Government.

On Tuesday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran commented on the  “absolutely phenomenal” efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine in people over 65, as shown in the data from the rollout in Scotland. 

He said he was waiting for the data to be reviewed by other scientists before deciding whether to roll it out to over-65s as well. 

Véran, who is 40, demonstrated his confidence in the vaccine by getting the shot himself on February 8.

France has been contending with resistance from some medical personnel to take the AstraZeneca jab.

Earlier this month, the UFLM, a group representing medical personnel, asked for medical personnel to receive only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, for fear of the AstraZeneca vaccine having poorer performance. 

As some of the first French healthcare workers were vaccinated, some reported strong flu-like side effects and called in sick from work. This prompted the country to stagger its vaccine roll out in health workers. 

Fischer, the French government vaccine lead, has previously been dismissive of the idea that these side effects were concerning. He criticized  the “dramatization” of the side effects while speaking to radio broadcaster Europe 1, Le Point reported on February 18.

He said that the side effects are mostly seen in younger populations, and that “barely anything” happens in people over 50. 

France’s vaccination campaign started off slowly, and faced resistance from the start. It is still far behind other countries, with around 3.8 millions doses of vaccines delivered as of February 23. That is just over half the 7.5 million doses delivered in Israel and 17 times fewer than the over 66.4 million doses delivered in the US, according to Our World in Data. 

The country is dealing with a historically low confidence in vaccines. In December, a poll revealed that only 40% of French people wanted to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The country’s trust in the medical establishment has been rocked by medical scandals, such as the one surrounding the Mediator diabetes diet pill in 2019.

That mistrust has galvanized the rise to prominence of contrarian figures among anti-big Pharma and anti-capitalists groups in France, such as Dr. Didier Raoult.

The physician notably claimed that a malaria drug could prevent and cure COVID-19, a theory which became a favorite of President Donald Trump’s. The claim was later debunked by several trials. 

France is not the only country struggling with mistrust of the AstraZeneca jab, with people turning down the vaccine, not showing up to appointments, and gaming the system being seen across Europe and the UK, Insider reported this week. 

Thousands of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines have been stockpiling in Germany as demand is low.  

Germany is also launching a campaign to encourage people to take the vaccine.

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