Health scares test confidence of Europeans in AstraZeneca vaccine

Early signs that many still want jab despite temporary ban over blood clot fears
A YouGov poll of 8,800 adults in six European countries published on Monday showed a deterioration in faith in the AstraZeneca jab © Antonio Masiello/Getty
Boris Monastier, a Paris pharmacist, has 50 people waiting to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine despite the series of missteps that have dogged the jab’s rollout. 
“We’ve not had a single cancellation,” he said. With access to only two vials a week, demand for the vaccine far exceeded his supply.
In the northern French town of Douai, chemist Saliha Grevin said she inoculated 250 people with the shot last weekend after regulators briefly suspended it over concerns about blood clots. She has had only a handful of refuseniks since the four-day ban was lifted.
“People are sick of it,” she said of the year-long pandemic. “They just want to be vaccinated so they can start living again.”
An elderly woman waits after receiving the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in a pharmacy in Nantes, France © Loic Venance/AFP/Getty
If confirmed, the apparent willingness to take a vaccine that had faced high-profile problems will help alleviate worries that its suspension in more than a dozen countries last week had fatally undermined confidence.
Early data show that in Italy average daily doses of AstraZeneca administered had almost recovered since the vaccinations restarted on Friday, although uptake remains lower in France and Germany, according to Financial Times analysis.
The shot is a key element in the EU’s much-maligned vaccination programme, which must be ramped up in the coming months if the bloc is to be rescued from the pandemic.
Some doctors and public health officials had criticised the decision to halt AstraZeneca inoculations while reports of rare blood clots were examined, saying it risked confusing people and encouraging vaccine sceptics.
A YouGov poll of 8,800 adults in six European countries published on Monday showed a deterioration in faith in the AstraZeneca jab, with more respondents in France, Germany, Spain and Italy viewing it as unsafe. 
But with supplies of the three approved Covid-19 vaccines still extremely limited and infections rising again in much of Europe, many people, especially the elderly and vulnerable, remain desperate to be vaccinated with whatever they can get.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been plagued with issues for months, beginning with a debate over its efficacy in older people that has since been resolved as more data came in. Then came a row with the EU over a large shortfall in deliveries, and the blood clot episode.
A European Medicines Agency review concluded last week that the jab was “safe and effective” and that its benefits outweighed the risk. But it could not definitively rule out a link between the vaccine and the blood clots in the brain, low platelet counts and bleeding experienced by a small number of people who received the jab.
Medical personnel prepare AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines at a surgery in Maintal, Germany. The country’s daily pace of inoculation to Wednesday remains about 40 per cent lower than what it was before the break. © Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
The EMA decision put the onus on individual countries to decide what to do. Many such as Germany, France, Italy and Sweden have moved ahead with AstraZeneca — although some added restrictions barring use for those under 55 or 65. Norway and Denmark have kept use of the vaccine on hold.
AstraZeneca has defended the jab’s safety and efficacy throughout, and said its data showed that blood clots were no more likely than would be expected in the general population.
Stockpiles have built up during the break. Italy, Germany and France said this week that they had used 53-60 per cent of their AstraZeneca doses. In contrast, utilisation rates for the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, which is the most important to Europe’s campaign in terms of volume, usually exceed 90 per cent. 
Health officials in countries where use of the AstraZeneca jab has restarted are now scrutinising data and monitoring signs such as cancelled appointments to determine whether action is needed. 
German media this week reported thousands of open appointments at AstraZeneca vaccination centers at airports in Berlin. Up to 10 per cent of AstraZeneca bookings have been cancelled in Italy, according to media reports, although there are no official figures.
Anne Souyris, a health adviser to the mayor of Paris, said the vaccination appointment hotline had been less busy than normal. “The negative headlines on AstraZeneca may have had an effect, but it’s too soon to tell,” she said. 
A woman receives a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, at the vaccination hub in Rome. Early data show that in Italy average daily doses of AstraZeneca administered had almost recovered since the vaccinations restarted on Friday © Antonio Masiello/Getty
Since Italy restarted use of the AstraZeneca shot on Friday, the average daily pace of inoculation was 11 per cent down on the pre-pause level, FT analysis of the data to Wednesday show. 
However, Germany’s daily pace of inoculation to Wednesday remained about 40 per cent lower than what it was before the break.
The trend in France was similar over the period, 38 per cent lower than before, although more than 80,000 AstraZeneca doses were administered daily on Tuesday and Wednesday, higher than on the same days before the break. That pushed the daily totals above 300,000, which is among the highest since January.
Thursdays and Fridays also tend to be the busiest day for AstraZeneca jabs in France because supplies arrive at pharmacies and doctors midweek.
“There is the beginning of a positive dynamic on AstraZeneca and if it’s confirmed then we should be able to hit 1.7m injections overall this week,” said a French health official. 
Officials at a vaccination centre in the German town of Rostock said everyone with an appointment for an AstraZeneca shot had showed up.
“They know that if they don’t they’ll have to go to the back of the queue. And no one knows at this stage when they’ll be offered another appointment,” said Steffen Bockhahn, head of social affairs in the local government. “It’s a case of use it or lose it.”
Elisabethe Mercier, 72, who runs a Paris newspaper kiosk, was initially sceptical about vaccinations but changed her mind so she could resume her Sunday lunch ritual at her favourite brasserie.
“I was trying all available avenues and was on wait-lists at my doctor and pharmacist,” Mercier explained.
She finally secured an appointment to receive the AstraZeneca jab on April 6. “AstraZeneca or another vaccine, it doesn’t matter,” she said.
Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris and Donato Mancini in Rome
From; The Financial Times Limited