Who are the Covid vaccine doubters in France? We ask a researcher

France deconfined too quickly, August is going to be hard, and France must convince doubters of vaccine benefits, says a member of a collective of health professionals aiming to provide factual information about Covid-19

10 July 2021
Patients waiting on a vaccination

France has fully vaccinated around 40% of its population, but the rate of first injections has slowed slightly in the past few weeks Pic: Obatala-photography / Shutterstock

By Thomas Brent

France has so far partially vaccinated just over 52% of its population against Covid-19, and fully vaccinated 37.9%, but in recent weeks the number of people getting a first dose has slowed.

This has sparked Prime Minister Jean Castex to call for a debate on making Covid vaccines mandatory for certain professions in France, notably nurses and care workers. 

The Connexion spoke to Eric Billy, a researcher in the field of immuno-oncology based in Strasbourg and a member of the research collective Du Côté de la Science, about what is causing vaccine hesitancy and whether common myths about vaccines have some truth in them.

Who are the people who are hesitating to be vaccinated against Covid-19?

It is complicated. 

A Swiss study that is ongoing has found that there is not necessarily a link to the level of education. There are people with high levels of education who refuse to be vaccinated and who are often the ones putting forward anti-vaccine theories, while those with lower education levels are most often victims of these theories. 

In both cases, they are refusing to be vaccinated.

There is also the question of access to vaccinations. Beyond a certain age, not everyone can easily organise an appointment online, so it falls to their children or grandchildren to help. And if these younger people are against being vaccinated, then we have seen situations where their elderly relative also does not get vaccinated.

We can criticise the people who are inventing or spreading false information about vaccinations but we should not criticise the people who are not getting vaccinated because they are worried or have doubts, we should help them to see the benefits [of the vaccines].

France’s Health Minister Olivier Véran has said not enough nurses and care workers are vaccinated. Why are some health professionals refusing the vaccination?

It depends on which health professionals. For example, around 90% of hospital doctors and GPs are vaccinated, and around 80% of hospital nurses are vaccinated.

One big worry is carers working in retirement homes. There are some who say that as their patients are vaccinated, they do not have to get vaccinated themselves. That is clearly an error. 

I saw on Twitter a doctor working in Paris stating that from what he has seen with regard to nurses and carers who are not vaccinated, there is a group effect. 

This can happen among friends or colleagues who are against vaccines. 

But once one of the people in the group disagrees and comes out in favour of vaccines, the idea spreads.

It shows that it is enough to convince one or two and in the end most of the group will get vaccinated. 

What do you think about making the vaccines obligatory for people working in certain professions?

It could be a good idea as a way to stop care workers putting their patients in danger, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Vaccinating the one million care workers in France will not lead us to herd immunity. 

Everyone needs to take responsibility for us to reach herd immunity. So I am personally against the idea of obligatory vaccinations. 

I think it is better to explain the benefits of vaccinations. For example, more vaccine coverage will allow our children to attend school in person after the summer. 

Also obligatory vaccines would have to be extended to all professions that are in direct contact with the public for it to make sense. 

Take the example of an ambulance driver. They are in contact with many more people than a nurse working in a Covid intensive care unit, for example. 

This is the same for home care workers, bus drivers...etc. So, if we think about all the professions where people are in close contact with the public and therefore at risk of spreading Covid-19, that’s a lot of people. In the end it would be the case that the vaccine would be obligatory for everyone. 

For me, it should be a personal decision. But there is the possibility that if we don’t manage to sufficiently protect the population by getting enough people vaccinated, then we will have to resort to obligatory vaccinations, but that would be a failure.

Has the government done enough to explain the benefits of the vaccines to people?

In our collective, we think they made a mistake.

There was the deconfinement in France, which happened based on a set schedule rather than on criteria related to the epidemic. 

Another thing is the health protocol regarding the reopening of restaurants, nightclubs, etc. It is not strict enough. 

There was also this idea given out by the government that life was returning to normal and everything was going well and that’s why we came out of lockdown.

And then we saw that in the space of a few weeks, people stopped thinking about barrier gestures. 

The government’s communication was, ‘everything is fine, the virus is not really circulating, so we can lift all the restrictions’.

They should have been saying, ‘thanks to the vaccines we can lift certain restrictions, but we must keep it up’. 

France is just a few weeks behind the UK in terms of the spread of the Delta variant.

The big difference is that in the UK, they had a longer lockdown and they really had about six weeks when the rate of Covid-19 cases was extremely low. In France, we barely had a low rate of cases before we deconfined, and now cases are starting to go up again. 

This is due to the Delta variant and because we deconfined too quickly and we have vaccinated fewer people than the UK. 

August is going to be very difficult in France. 

What can France do to resolve the situation and make sure Covid-19 cases do not keep increasing?

We need to educate people about vaccines and the vaccination needs to be linked to returning to a normal life. 

I mean that it should allow people access to certain things. So, we can reopen nightclubs, but only for those who are vaccinated. Or for non-vaccinated people, they will have to pay for a Covid-19 test to get in. 

We need to get across the idea that we live in a society, all together, and there comes a point when we must do things for the good of everyone. And the vaccination is part of that. It is the way for us all to return to a normal life.

The government has made some good decisions. For example, we can get first and second doses in different places.

Also, most vaccination centres are giving injections without appointments, that’s a good thing. 

Will it be enough? I’m not really sure. 

Some people who are against Covid vaccines say they were created too quickly. What do you say to that?

It’s false.

The first mRNA vaccine injection (this is the technology that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are based on) in humans was given at the end of the 2000s, beginning of the 2010s for cancer treatment. 

So for years this technology has been studied and used.

To say that it has been made too quickly is nonsense.

The technology existed, it is just that Covid-19 has been the health crisis that has allowed us to demonstrate that it is efficient. That’s all.

Other people who are against the vaccines worry that there could be long-term side-effects. Is that a possibility?

In the whole history of vaccines, all side effects have been found within two to three months of the injection. There have never been side effects detected years after the injection that were not detected within the first few months.

It has never happened.

The second thing is that vigilance around the Covid vaccines is working well. Very quickly in Europe we realised there was this problem of thrombosis linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

It was one case in 100,000. 

For the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, we discovered that there were a few cases of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) among teenagers within four weeks. 

It was discovered very quickly. All these cases have been resolved. 

What can we say to people we know who are hesitating to get vaccinated against Covid-19 to convince them to do it?

By not getting vaccinated, you risk transmitting the virus to someone who could become very ill from it or even die. 

This can really happen, it is not just to make the person guilty. It is a choice everyone needs to make.

Also, in order to get back to a normal life, to travel, go to restaurants, nightclubs...all that will only be possible when the virus is no longer circulating. And for that to happen, everyone needs to get vaccinated.

If not, we’re going to continue to live with restrictions, where every six weeks we’re closing nightclubs and bars, etc. 

This is what will happen. Without the vaccines, there is no return to normal life. There is no other solution.

Read more:

Head of rural French mayors calls for mandatory Covid vaccines for all

France Covid: Delta ‘dominant within days’, new measures under review

President Macron to address nation Monday July 12 on Covid situation

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