Side-effects from the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine are rare and could even be a good sign that the jab is working, French medical experts have said, as rollout begins in workplaces for staff aged 50-64 today.
The AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with Oxford University, is 80% effective against serious forms of Covid after two doses.
Yet, some centres in France - including in Brest, Saint-Lô, Morlaix and Paris - have suspended their delivery of the vaccine due to reports of severe, flu-like side-effects in healthcare staff given the jab.
These include fatigue, shakes, headache, nausea, vomiting and fever.
National medicine safety agency l’Agence nationale de sécurité du médicament has said it has received reports of 149 severe side-effects after the first injection of the AstraZeneca vaccine between February 6 and 10.
This is out of 10,000 people who were vaccinated with the jab during this time period, with patients who developed severe side-effects at 1.5%.
But Professor Jean-Daniel Lelièvre, head of infectious diseases at the Henri-Mondor hospital in Créteil, and vaccine expert at health authority la Haute autorité de santé, told HuffPost France that there is “no need” to worry, and that the side-effects actually show that the vaccine is working.
He said: “They correspond to the putting in place of innate immunity. For there to be immunity, there must be antibodies, and immune cells that protect the organism from the pathogen.”
The vaccine causes the body to make antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19.
Professor Lelièvre said that the side-effects from the Covid jab are similar to getting a stomach ache after taking antibiotics. He said that they are not worrying in comparison to other vaccines, such as the H1N1 jab in 2013, which caused neurological issues in some patients.
He said that “everybody has different reactions to a foreign object”, and that even if you have no side-effects, that does not mean that the vaccine is not working.
It comes as France begins the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in workplaces for staff aged 50-64 today. Vulnerable people aged 50-64 can also request an appointment at vaccination centres.
The AstraZeneca vaccine may cause more side-effects as it uses viral vector technology, in contrast to the Pfizer and Moderna jabs, which use the mRNA method.
Viral vector technology uses another virus to cause the body to create antibodies, while the mRNA vaccines use cell strands with genetic instructions to make specific coronavirus antigens.
Dr Benjamin Davido, vaccine specialist at the Garches hospital in Paris, said: “With Pfizer and Moderna, it is as if we had a copy of the illness, but by taking out the pathogen element. It is therefore much more natural and explains, among other reasons, why we feel less ill [with those].”
Age can also play a role. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been used mainly among the over 75s, and high-risk healthcare workers aged 50 and over.
The AstraZeneca vaccine has been used mainly for younger people, aged 50-64. The immune response in younger people can be stronger, which may explain why there have been more unwanted side effects from that vaccine.
Professor Lelièvre said: “Young people have better immune systems, and create more antibodies.”
Dr Davido added that the people who experience the strongest vaccine side-effects may also be those who have already had Covid - maybe even without knowing it - as they already have antibodies; but may have had no symptoms at the time of illness.
He also said that side-effect reporting in France could appear higher than in other countries, especially when compared to the UK, because the country has a “particularly effective” monitoring system.
He said: “In the case of our UK neighbours, unwanted side-effects pass by more or less under the radar. That is not the case in France because we are ‘teacher’s pet’ in that we have a particularly effective pharma monitoring system.”
‘Not a second class vaccine’
Debates around the AstraZeneca vaccine have reignited after some studies suggested that it was less effective against some new variants, especially the South African strain.
The World Health Organisation has still continued to recommend the vaccine, even in countries where the new strains are more prevalent. It is said to be effective against the UK variant.
In France, the latest figures show that the UK variant now accounts for 20-25% of new cases, while the South-African and Brazilian account for 4% and 5% respectively.
Dr Davido said: “If we stop the AstraZeneca vaccination out of fear over reduced effectiveness against the new variants, we risk overlooking all of those who would go on to develop the ‘regular’ form of the illness. The more [people] we vaccinate, the more people we will catch [and stop the illness developing].”
He has called for a widespread rollout of the jab across everyone in France.
This echoes the calls of other specialists, including the infectious diseases specialist Professor Odile Launay, who on February 22 told news service FranceInfo that people “should absolutely get vaccinated with the AstraZeneca jab, and not wait”, despite “a slightly lower effectiveness rate” and the risk of side-effects.
Vaccin Astra Zeneca : "Il faut absolument compter sur ce vaccin", assure l'infectiologue Odile Launay. "Il faut absolument que les Français se fassent vacciner avec ce vaccin et n'attendent pas d'avoir plus de vaccins ARN messager"— franceinfo (@franceinfo) February 22, 2021
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Professor Alain Fischer, France’s vaccination coordinator, has said: “[The AstraZeneca jab] is not a second-class vaccine.”
Health Minister Olivier Véran was himself vaccinated publicly with the AstraZeneca jab at a vaccination centre in Melun, Seine-et-Marne, early this month.
He was vaccinated early due to his healthcare work as a neurologist, but also in a bid to reassure people about the vaccines overall.