France AstraZeneca pause: How key is vaccine to campaign?

The British-Swedish vaccine is central to the vaccine roll-out in France, and a continued suspension would significantly impact vaccination

16 March 2021
By Hannah Thompson

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which was temporarily suspended from use in France yesterday (March 15) pending investigations into possible side-effects, is a key part of the country’s campaign.

It was initially recommended only for use among younger (under 65s) people but this later changed and it has become the most-administered daily jab in the country.

It is the vaccine that is being administered by GPs at their practices and in pharmacies.

Its use is currently suspended in France, and seven other EU countries, after reports of blood clotting issues. No link to the vaccine has yet been established. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is set to meet today, and issue new advice on Thursday.

Yesterday, President Emmanuel Macron said: “On the recommendation of the minister for health, working with French health authorities, the decision has been taken, in line with European policy, to suspend the AstraZeneca vaccine, hoping to restart it again as soon as possible if the advice is favourable.”

European countries that have suspended the AstraZeneca vaccine

The British-Swedish vaccine was the third to be approved for use in France after the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs.

One month after it first began to be used in the country, it already accounts for more than a quarter of all the vaccines given.

Proportion of vaccines given by brand in France

Over the past few days, it had passed the Pfizer/BioNTech jab in terms of the number of daily doses given. This is largely because it has been prioritised for younger people under age 74, who are far more numerous than older people.

Number of doses given per brand per day in France

And while the AstraZeneca vaccine has a lower effectiveness level - 76% after a first dose and 82% after a second - compared to near-95% for the Moderna and Pfizer jabs, it is easier to transport and store, as it can be kept in a normal fridge, rather than requiring the deep freeze of its competitors.

Millions of doses of the AstraZeneca jab were expected to be delivered to France in the coming weeks.

Delivery forecasts by brand in France

If the current suspension continues - if the new advice from the EMA this week is negative - it will be seen as a major blow to the French vaccination rollout.

This week, Dr Jean-Paul Ortiz, president of medical union group la Confédération des syndicats médicaux français (CSMF), told news service FranceInfo: “This decision is catastrophic when it comes to the Covid-19 epidemic.

“It is a very political decision and very clearly a tough blow to vaccination. All the side-effects of this vaccine are simply flu-like symptoms that last 24 to 48 hours. I also note that the UK has vaccinated 20 million people with no problems.”

Dr Ortiz said that the decision to suspend the vaccine would increase mistrust of the vaccine whatever the decision of the EMA today.

He said: “I fear that sadly, even with a positive decision, this decision will have an extremely negative effect. I confess I am very worried about what is going to happen over the next few days.”

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