PARIS — First, France's president suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in protecting older people from COVID-19. Now, Emmanuel Macron's government is begging people to take it.
Germany finds itself in a similar situation.
Berlin shifted gears on its cautious policy this week after an independent vaccine panel said the AstraZeneca shots should be used in people over 65. Top German officials on Friday argued against “vaccine shopping” and urged people to take whatever potential protection they’re offered.
Mixed messaging has left many people in both countries confused or distrustful of governmental guidance on the AstraZeneca jab. Meanwhile, Europe's infections are rebounding and other people around the continent and the world are clamouring for access to any COVID-19 vaccine they can get.
European governments' initial hesitancy around AstraZeneca's vaccine was based on limited data on whether it works on those over 65. But new data on its effectiveness — and pressure to accelerate the EU’s slow vaccine rollout and utilize unused AstraZeneca doses — prompted health authorities in multiple European countries this week to reverse course and allow its use for all ages.
In France, all those who work with the sick or elderly have been eligible for weeks to get the AstraZeneca vaccine — but only 30% have taken it so far. Some have argued they want a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine instead, which are currently only available in France to the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions.
So French Health Minister Olivier Veran was sending a letter Friday to all health workers urging them to get vaccinated. And if that doesn't work, he said he could convene a special ethics committee to weigh requiring them to do so.
“Clearly that (30%) is not enough,” Veran told a news conference Thursday night. While paying homage to health workers, he said: “When you are a medical professional, it is your responsibility to protect ... yourself and your patients."
At his side, a family doctor echoed the plea. “I appeal to my colleagues: Please come and get vaccinated," said Dr. Marie-Laure Alby, noting that her patients are eager to get any vaccine.
The head of Germany’s disease control agency on Friday urged people to get vaccinated when given the opportunity. The comments from Robert Koch Institute President Lothar Wieler came amid reports that many in the country have declined the AstraZeneca shot over concerns it may not work as well as others.
“If you are offered a vaccine, please get yourself vaccinated. They are safe and effective,” Wieler said, adding that getting large numbers of people inoculated is “the way out of the pandemic.”
The vaccine made by British-Swedish company AstraZeneca is one of three authorized for use in the 27-nation European Union, though it has not yet received the green light from U.S. regulators. EU countries are also administering the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — and French nurse Michele Freret said she’d prefer one of those.
“If they vaccinate us with AstraZeneca and it is not as effective as Pfizer or others, then we will get COVID and there will be no medical staff to care for the people I care for,” she told The Associated Press.
She's concerned about the virus — “I constantly test myself” — and the doctors and nurses who have lost their lives fighting it. But she said she and some colleagues feel the government is trying to get rid of extra AstraZeneca vaccines by foisting them on medical staff.
France, which at more than 87,000 dead has among the highest coronavirus tolls in Europe, had as of Tuesday used only 25% of the 1.6 million AstraZeneca vaccines it has received. Restrictive rules and a rush of deliveries left Germany sitting on a stockpile of more than 2 million AstraZeneca doses this week.
France's skeptics often repeat a comment last month by Macron, when he told reporters: “The real problem on AstraZeneca is that it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to ... today everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65.” Hours after he spoke, the European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine's use for all ages, but the damage to its image had been done.
Some also cite confusing early data on AstraZeneca's effectiveness, or question whether it works against new virus variants. The company is working on a new version to respond to evolving variants.
The European efforts to rehabilitate the vaccine's reputation come as new infections rose 9% across the continent in the past week, halting six weeks of decline.
Rising contributed from Berlin.
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Angela Charlton And Dave Rising, The Associated Press