France’s chaotic vaccine roll-out took a bizarre twist today as the country resumed using AstraZeneca jabs – but said only people aged 55 and over should get them.
It marks a complete U-turn from France’s old position which was that the jab should be limited to those aged under 65 because there was not enough data to prove it was effective in older people.
Now, bafflingly, the country says younger people should avoid getting the jab to minimise the risk of life-threatening blood clots – even after Europe’s regulators ruled on Thursday that the risk is vanishingly small and the jab is safe in all ages.
France announced its latest move just hours before 55-year-old Prime Minister Jean Castex was injected with the shot in an attempt to prove to his countrymen it is safe, after weeks of scaremongering from his own government.
Meanwhile the country’s 64-year-old ambassador to the UK was also immunized using the AstraZeneca vaccine, inadvertently undermining her own government’s message by tweeting: ‘Done. Safe.’
Her NHS vaccine card shows she was given the jab on March 16, while it was still banned in her own country and Britain powered ahead with its roll-out.
France has now restricted AstraZeneca’s vaccine in one form or another for as long as citizens have been eligible to receive it – despite a rising third wave of cases driven by the more-infectious UK variant of the virus.
Several regions, including Paris, will be plunged back into lockdown starting at midnight tonight after hospitals overflowed.
In other vaccine developments on the continent today…
- Finland became the latest country to suspend its use of AstraZeneca jabs over clot fears, despite regulators saying just hours earlier it was safe to use
- Norway, Denmark and Sweden announced they will continue to block the use of Astra jabs while they carry out their own investigations into blood clots
- Parisians fled the city hours before a month-long lockdown came into effect, with trains crammed and roads full of traffic
- German health chiefs warned cases are rising exponentially, there are not enough vaccines to stop them, and the country may have to go back into lockdown in the coming weeks
- Health experts warned that European dithering and delay over vaccines will cost ‘thousands’ of lives
Jean Castex, the 55-year-old prime minister of France, winces as he receives the AstraZeneca vaccine hours after health regulators in the country ruled that anyone younger than him should not get it at all
France’s ambassador in the UK, Catherine Colonna, 65, had the Oxford jab on the NHS today and praised Britain’s vaccine roll-out by saying that her injection was ‘Done. Safely’
The countries in green have already reinstated the AstraZeneca vaccine while those in red have yet to make an announcement or say that they will not immediately restart the jabs. Those in orange banned a particular batch of doses, while the countries in grey – including the UK – remained unmoved by the blood clot fears all along
The AstraZeneca chaos has contributed to France having a slow rate of vaccinations compared to the UK, with only 5.6million people given a first dose compared to 25.7million in Britain
Passengers pack into the Gare Montparnasse in Paris today as people flee the French capital hours before new lockdown measures take effect for a third of France’s population
Parisians walk along a platform to catch a train leaving from the Gare Montparnasse which serves the west and southwest of France
Roads leading out of Paris were congested on Friday as city-dwellers wanting to avoid a month-long lockdown that is due to be imposed from midnight tonight fled
Parisians piled on to trains in an exodus from the French capital today hours before a third of the country is plunged into a new month-long lockdown.
Trains heading west to Brittany and south to Lyon were fully booked on Friday with platforms packed at the Gare Montparnasse as 12million people in the Paris region brace for the new restrictions.
French PM Jean Castex announced the new measures last night amid a third wave of Covid-19 cases which has thrown Paris hospitals into crisis, with vaccines coming too slowly to protect large chunks of the population.
Across the whole of Europe, a majority of countries are now seeing cases rise as a third wave of infections takes hold while governments dither and delay getting vaccines to people.
After a week-long delay, most European nations which has stopped the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccines – including the likes of Germany, France, Italy and Spain – resumed their use today.
But the wait will drag on for citizens of Denmark, Sweden and Norway as their governments insisted they will carry out their own investigations into the clots – despite the European Medicines Agency, the World Health Organization, Britain’s MHRA and AstraZeneca itself assuring them that the vaccine is safe.
Meanwhile Iceland and Ireland, which also stopped use of the jabs, have yet to react to the news. In a bizarre move Finland, having waited for European regulators to declare the jab safe, announced it is halting its use.
Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, warned bluntly that such vaccine restrictions will cost ‘thousands’ of lives.
France’s new recommendation is based on the fact that the blood clots which led to the jab’s suspension in much of Europe had occurred only in people under 55.
EU regulators gave their definitive verdict on Thursday by saying that the vaccine was ‘safe and effective’, and did not recommend any age-related restrictions.
The safety panel at the European Medicines Agency said there was no increased risk of blood clots linked to the vaccine.
But French regulators now claim there is a ‘possible increased risk’ of thrombosis among under-55s, meaning younger people will not be given the jab.
Meanwhile in Germany, health minister Jens Spahn warned today that Covid cases are rising exponentially and there is not enough vaccine to stop them, raising the prospect that Europe’s largest will be back in lockdown in the coming weeks.
Spahn said it would take weeks to vaccinate the country’s most vulnerable people, even now that the AstraZeneca ban has been lifted.
German immunologist Carsten Watzl warned of more deaths after tens of thousands of appointments were missed – urging people to take AstraZeneca’s jab rather than wait for the Pfizer/BioNTech one co-developed in Germany.
Angela Merkel is due to meet with leaders of Germany’s 16 states on Monday to discuss whether to extend a lockdown that has been in place since mid-December.
The long lockdown and vaccine chaos have sapped public confidence in Merkel’s party, which took a kicking from voters at two regional elections last Sunday.
But plans to ease restrictions may now have to be shelved as cases climb well above the threshold of 50 cases per 100,000 seen as a benchmark for re-opening society.
The current rate is 95.6 after Germany added nearly 84,000 new cases in the last week, a sharp jump from 63,000 the week before.
Cases reached a peak of 181,000 per week in December, but health experts warn those levels of contagion could return because of the feared British strain.
Passengers wait at Montparnasse railway station in Paris as they leave the city on the eve of another lockdown
People hold their luggage as they wait to board a train out of Paris today despite the government’s insistence that the lockdown is less severe than last year’s measures
Parisians walks along a platform to catch a train leaving from the Gare Montparnasse serving the west and southwest of France
The EU’s slow progress on vaccinations is putting countries at risk of devastating third waves, with nations including Germany, Italy and France all seeing infection rates climb again this month
France’s infection rate has reached its highest levels since a November lockdown, prompting Macron’s government to impose new restrictions on 21million people
It marks the third change to France’s vaccine policies in quick succession amid a chaotic roll-out lagging way behind Britain’s in the global league table.
On February 2, France approved the AstraZeneca vaccine but only for under-65s, amid concerns about limited data on older people in clinical trials.
Macron poured fuel on the fire by claiming the jab was ‘quasi-ineffective’ in what was seen as an act of post-Brexit ill-will amid an angry row between the EU and AstraZeneca.
Real-world data from England and Scotland subsequently showed that the AstraZeneca jab was highly effective at stopping severe illness in older people.
On March 2, France changed tack and said that people under 75 with existing health problems could get the jab, while still blocking it for its oldest citizens.
Then, on Monday, France joined the tide of EU countries blocking the jab altogether over sporadic reports of blood clots among millions of people given a dose.
Many of those countries including Germany and Italy have since announced they will resume the AstraZeneca campaign in full after the EMA’s ruling on Thursday.
But France is set to continue limiting access to the jab, even as Castex tries to rally public support by taking it himself.
France’s failure to produce its own vaccine has caused political hand-wringing in a country with a proud history of intellectual and scientific achievements.
Emmanuel Macron has previously said that he would take the AstraZeneca shot if offered, but as a 43-year-old he would not be eligible under the new recommendation.
Dominique Le Guludec, head of the French health regulator HAS, said blood clots in those who had received the vaccine were ‘very rare’ but also ‘serious.’
Passengers board a high-speed train at Montparnasse railway station in Paris as they flee the city to avoid lockdown
Railway stations in Paris were packed with people eager to avoid being shut in their houses for another month
Paris has been hard-hit by France’s third wave of coronavirus with patients having to be evacuated from the city’s hospitals as their intensive care units overflowed
A Covid patient evacuated from the Paris region is taken out of a plane after landing at Biarritz in southwestern France
Paris will go into a month-long Covid lockdown starting tonight to try and stem a rise in Covid cases that has caused hospitals to overflow as unvaccinated citizens fell seriously ill
Emmanuel Macron, pictured, has come under fire at home and abroad after presiding over a chaotic vaccine roll-out and a third wave of the epidemic in France
Travel agencies offer ‘vaccine vacations’ to Germans
As Germany limps along in its vaccine roll-out, travel agencies are lining up ‘vaccine vacations’ in which Germans could pay to get a jab abroad.
A travel agency called World Visitor is offering two trips to Russia – one for each dose – in a £1,025 package advertised specifically for Germans, according to DW.
There is also a £2,560 option in which people can stay in a Russian health resort in between their two doses of Russia’s Sputnik V jab.
Another alternative would allow them to spend their trip in Turkey but make short trips to Russia to get the vaccine in an airport terminal.
Germans arriving in Russia would have to provide a negative PCR test even if they are only transiting through the country, according to the foreign ministry in Berlin.
A separate travel agency, Fit Reisen, says it has had enquiries about whether its usual health getaways could be expanded to include vaccine trips.
Israel, Serbia and the UAE have all attracted interest as destinations with higher vaccination rates than the EU.
Fit Reisen says its plans have been put on hold but argued that the holidays would have both health and economic benefits.
Some German politicians are arguing in favour of Russia’s Sputnik V being approved in the EU to speed up Europe’s jab roll-out.
Hungary and others have already turned to Sputnik V but its use in a Western country such as Germany would amount to a major propaganda coup for the Kremlin.
She said that while waiting for additional information, those under 55 should get vaccinated with Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson products.
In France, out of 1.4 million AstraZeneca doses administered, cases were seen in a 51-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman, she said.
EMA chief Emer Cooke said on Thursday that the watchdog had seen a small number of cases but that the overall risk was no higher than in the general population.
She warned that ‘we still cannot rule out definitively a link between these cases and the vaccine’, but the EMA says the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.
The EMA had recommended adding a warning to product information with the AstraZeneca shot.
The latest vaccine chaos comes as Parisians piled onto trains on Friday hours before the capital and a third of the country is plunged into a new lockdown.
Trains heading out of Paris were fully booked on Friday with platforms packed at the Gare Montparnasse as 21million people brace for the new restrictions.
Castex announced the new measures last night amid a third wave of infections which has thrown Paris hospitals into crisis, with vaccines coming too slowly to protect large chunks of the population.
The EU’s blood clot fiasco has added to the bloc’s vaccination chaos after supply problems, bureaucratic health systems and stashes of unused AstraZeneca shots left the bloc languishing behind Britain in the vaccine race.
AstraZeneca’s product was already struggling for popularity in Europe after top officials feuded with the firm in a post-Brexit row over supplies and then cast unfounded doubts on its efficacy in over-65s.
The EU is threatening to block shipments to Britain as it plays hardball over supplies, prompting anger in Whitehall with cabinet minister Robert Jenrick saying today he was ‘surprised and disappointed’ by Brussels’ stance.
But Europe is struggling to shift the jabs that it does have – with former Finnish PM Alexander Stubb claiming that 40 per cent of the vaccines bought by the EU are ‘laying around in various storage in European member states’.
The head of a Spanish vaccinology group warned that the suspensions have already caused ‘fear and panic’, telling El Pais that ‘we will have to move heaven and earth to recover the credibility of this vaccine’.
The Department of Health and Social Care said 25,273,226 in the UK have received their first dose of AstraZeneca of Pfizer vaccine between December 8 and March 16
Macron is under fire in France with opponents saying that ‘when you hit the emergency brake, with a weekend lockdown for example, it’s because you’ve failed with all the rest’.
‘Let’s be clear, we’re in a third wave mostly down to the rise of this famous British variant,’ Macron said on Wednesday after a day of talks with medical staff and local mayors in the Paris area.
The French president had previously been criticised for rubbishing the AstraZeneca vaccine as ‘quasi-ineffective’ in older people in what was seen as an act of post-Brexit ill will.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam weighed in to defend the vaccine on Wednesday, saying that the jabs ‘don’t save lives if they’re in the fridge’.
Van-Tam said there was ‘a lot of evidence emerging now that is reassuring, that there is no overall excess signal or increased risk’ of blood clots or related events.
The World Health Organization also said on Wednesday that it was better to take the AstraZeneca vaccine than not – adding that it was looking into available data on the shot.
The cases which have surfaced include a handful of people taken to hospital in Norway, an Austrian nurse who died soon after the shot and a specific type of blood clot which Germany says is happening more than usual.
But none of these have been proven to result from the vaccine, and both UK and EU scientists have said the number of blood clots overall does not seem to be higher than in the general population.