5 min read.Updated: 04 Mar 2021, 06:25 PM ISTStacy Meichtry,Bojan Pancevski, The Wall Street Journal
Germany, Italy and other large European countries are restricting older people from receiving the shot as France loosens rules
Europe’s reluctance to distribute millions of doses of AstraZeneca PLC’s Covid-19 vaccine is coming under pressure after the French government authorized use of the shot for some older people.
The French government announced it would allow people with comorbidities between the ages of 65 and 74 to receive the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. New data from the U.K. on Monday showed just one dose of the vaccine was effective in preventing disease and deaths among adults aged 70 and older who had received it.
France’s move was a sharp departure from a month ago when President Emmanuel Macron told reporters that the vaccine was quasi ineffective for people older than 65, without providing evidence to back up his claim. The comments helped sow doubts across the European Union that still persist.
Germany, Italy and other large European countries continue to restrict older people from receiving AstraZeneca’s vaccine, citing a lack of data about its efficacy with 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 shots to younger people until older cohorts and people with priority, such as medical staff, have received a vaccine.
France has administered only a quarter of the 1.6 million shots it began receiving from AstraZeneca last month, according to French officials. Italy has used only 26% of its supply, while Spain has administered 43% of its shots.
In Germany, which has used less than a third of its nearly 1.5 million AstraZeneca doses, some states such as Bavaria and Saxony have decided to donate doses to neighboring countries badly hit by the virus instead of letting them languish in storage.
“Too many vaccines are still laying around in the refrigerators," said German Health Minister Jens Spahn last week.
The restrictions on administering the AstraZeneca vaccine risk undercutting a major plank in the continent’s plans to accelerate a rollout that has been slow compared with the U.S. and U.K. So-called mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna Inc. and the alliance of Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE are in limited supply in Europe. They also have storage requirements that are colder than the AstraZeneca vaccine, making them harder to administer in pharmacies and other accessible locations.
In March, France plans to administer a total of six million shots—more than half of them coming from AstraZeneca. About three million people, less than 5% of France’s population, so far have received a single dose of any vaccine.
In the U.K., where AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been widely deployed, more than 20 million people, or 30% of its population, have received at least one vaccine shot. That has allowed the government to lay out step-by-step plans for an almost complete reopening of its economy by June 21. Hospitalizations and deaths among older people, the first to get vaccinated, have begun to fall significantly more rapidly than among the unvaccinated population.
Canada’s government on Monday recommended the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot be given to adults regardless of age, going against the recommendation of a national vaccine-advisory committee that earlier Monday had cited insufficient data about the shot’s effectiveness in older people. Canadian government officials said they considered the shot safe and effective for adults of all ages.
A test for the vaccine is expected soon after late-stage human trials wrap up in the U.S. AstraZeneca has said it expects results from those trials—with around 30,000 volunteers in the U.S., Chile and Peru—by the end of this month, meaning a U.S. verdict on the vaccine could come as soon as April.
Governments across Europe now face the challenge of overcoming public skepticism toward the AstraZeneca vaccine. That has become more ingrained in recent weeks as many younger healthcare workers have publicly refused the company’s vaccine because of concerns over efficacy and reports of side effects.
Alain Fischer, an immunologist overseeing 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 deeply unjust," Dr. Fischer said. “This vaccine gets relatively bad press in France."
AstraZeneca’s European rollout stumbled the moment it left the gates. On Jan. 29, the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s drug regulator, endorsed the vaccine’s use in people 18 and older while warning the shot hadn’t been sufficiently tested in people over 55.
Earlier that day Mr. Macron met with a group of reporters inside the Élysée Palace who questioned whether he was mistaken in backing the EU’s strategy of collectively procuring vaccine supplies instead of going it alone like the U.K.
Mr. Macron, a longtime champion of the EU, fired back: “The real problem with AstraZeneca is that it hasn’t worked the way we expected. Because we’ve had very little information." So far, he said, “everything seems to indicate that it’s quasi ineffective for people older than 65 years old, some say 60 years and above."
Amid the confusion, national health authorities across the continent began issuing their own guidance. Spain cut off access for anyone older than 55. Italy restricted people 55 and up from receiving AstraZeneca’s shot, saying it needed more data for that age group, before bending to public pressure and placing the restriction at 65 years old and up.
Germany’s standing vaccination committee, a panel of experts that issues guidance on vaccination, went against the EMA’s guidance, recommending the shot only for people younger than 65. The committee said it based the decision on the lack of trial data about the vaccine’s efficacy on the elderly, not because of any doubt 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 committee’s chief, Thomas Mertens, said elderly people could expect to receive the shot soon. The initial guidance wasn’t intended to criticize the vaccine itself, he said, adding: “The whole thing somehow did not turn out that well."
—Jenny Strasburg in London and Giovanni Legorano in Rome contributed to this article.
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