A new phase in France’s Covid vaccination campaign begins today with people aged 50 to 64 who have existing medical conditions able to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The vaccination will be administered mainly by GPs in their practices and in dedicated vaccination centres.
Patients will be chosen according to priority, starting with those who are the most at risk of a severe form of Covid-19.
This includes people with existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, respiratory disease, chronic kidney disease, obesity, etc.
Around two million people fall into this group and the Ministry of Health is hoping to have them all vaccinated, if they so wish, by the middle of March.
The doctors participating in this stage of the vaccination had to sign up to volunteer. Around 29,000 GPs have done so, out of a total of around 52,000 in the country.
If you are eligible under this category, you should be contacted by your doctor if they have a slot to give you a vaccination. If you fall into this category and think you should be a priority for the vaccination, you should contact your doctor.
AstraZeneca: Demand and scepticism
AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccination has not yet been approved for use on people aged over 65 in France, due to a lack of data on this age group.
This has created some scepticism in France about the vaccine’s effectiveness.
French health authority, the Haute Autorité de Santé (HAS) stated upon approving the vaccine that its effectiveness level is “satisfactory” - between 62% and 70%.
The HAS stated that their recommendation "will be re-examined in light of the availability of additional data, particularly for persons aged 65 and over."
Health Minister Olivier Véran mentioned on Tuesday (February 23) a recent study that he said shows the vaccine to be extremely effective.
“I'm cautious, but a Scottish pre-print study shows for the first time an absolutely phenomenal efficacy of AstraZeneca in elderly people, even those aged 65 and over,'' he said citing this study.
“I'm not going to give it to people aged 65 and over right away, I'm waiting for the article to be 'reviewed' [meaning peer-reviewed], and for the health authorities to say that, on the basis of this study, we can go ahead.”
Another concern has come from the fact that South Africa has decided against using the vaccine due to a lack of data on its efficacy against variants of Covid-19, notably the variant first found in South Africa.
Moderna, developer of another of the Covid vaccines being used in France, has now begun human trials on a modified version of its vaccine to immunise against the South African variant.
On top of worries about the vaccine’s effectiveness, there have also been concerns about side-effects.
Earlier this month, 149 French nurses who received the AstraZeneca vaccine reported “intense flu like symptoms”, which are now being investigated by national medicines safety agency l'Agence nationale de sécurité du médicament et des produits de santé (ANSM).
Professor Jean-Daniel Lelièvre, vaccines expert at the HAS, has said these side-effects were normal and show that the vaccine is working correctly.
If there is scepticism, it has not so far affected demand for the vaccine, said Dr Jean-Paul Ortiz, president of a union grouping French doctors the Confédération des syndicats médicaux français.
“We have some very demanding patients, but others need more explanations," he told newspaper Le Monde.
“The questions, the worries, it's normal, we're here to explain. This vaccine is effective, the flu syndrome that can occur after the injection only requires a little Doliprane.
"In any case, there are no shortage of candidates for this week.”
The Ministry of Health is maintaining its target of vaccinating 500,000 people with the AstraZeneca vaccine in this first week.
It announced on Tuesday that two additional vials containing the vaccine would be sent to pharmacies that have already distributed all their vials.
Choosing the priority patients
Dr Vincent Royaux, a GP in Lunéville (Meurthe-et-Moselle), told Le Monde that he has “more patients than places available”.
He said, though, that it was simple for him to choose his patients who should be vaccinated as a priority.
“People with long-term illnesses, with particular pathologies, pulmonary risks and respiratory fragility…” he said.
His waiting list is already made up for the next four weeks.
He said he had not noticed any effects of vaccine scepticism.
“Contrary to what has been heard, the fringe group of vaccine-sceptics has melted considerably in the sun from the time we got the first vaccines.
“When you explain that it gives 70% immunity with both doses versus zero [without], the choice is often a quick one,” he said.
Dr Alice Perrain, a GP in La Croix-en-Touraine (Indre-et-Loire), said choosing priority patients was not as simple.
“It's pretty stressful to have to select. My patients really want to be vaccinated, I have a lot of volunteers,” she told Le Monde.
She said she chose based on her patient’s health status, with the most serious cases picked first.
“It was complicated, but it is important to remember that this is not a final choice, there will be other vaccines,” she said.
She has decided to start vaccinating patients on March 6 rather than this week to ensure that doses of the vaccine are delivered.
What about people aged 65 to 74?
People aged 65 to 74 without any serious underlying health issues are not yet eligible to be vaccinated as they are outside the current age groups France has elected to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines and also the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Health Minister Olivier Véran has said that the government is hoping to open vaccinations to this age range “between the end of March and middle of April, depending on the number of people aged over 75 who choose to be vaccinated”.
Jacques Battistoni, head of doctors union MG France, said he hopes the next vaccine that is approved in France is given as priority to this age group.
Johnson & Johnson has submitted a demand for EU approval for its one-shot Covid-19 vaccine. If granted, the jab could be in use by April.