Politicians in Germany are stepping out in support of the AstraZeneca vaccine as public scepticism around the University of Oxford-developed product threatens to hamper Europe’s Covid-19 immunisation programme.
The vaccine, subject of an acrimonious tug-of-war between its British-Swedish manufacturer and the European commission last month, is being described by German media as a “shelf warmer” as only about 17% of doses delivered to the country have been administered so far.
According to the German disease control agency’s monitoring, 129,021 doses of a delivered 736,800 had been administered by Thursday this week.
The health minister, Jens Spahn, on Friday issued a public display of confidence in the vaccine, describing it as a “privilege” to be offered an injection with the “safe and effective” British jab. The Berlin mayor, Michael Müller, threatened to send people to the back of the queue if they refuse it and ask for alternatives.
“I won’t allow tens of thousands of doses to lie around on our shelves while millions of people across the country are waiting to be immunised,” he told Tagesspiegel newspaper. “Those who don’t want the vaccine have missed their chance.”
German medical authorities have only authorised the vaccine for under-65s following criticism of AstraZeneca’s trial data for older people, meaning the vaccine is currently being offered to healthcare workers and younger people with pre-existing conditions.
Side-effects that can follow a shot of the Oxford-developed vaccine, which were reported in clinical trials, are also causing logistical problems in its use among medics.
Karl-Dieter Heller, the director of the Herzogin Elisabeth hospital in Braunschweig, told Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that he had decided to vaccinate his staff only in smaller groups and on Fridays, after 40% of one group called in sick with flu-like symptoms after receiving their jab on a Thursday.
Heller said none of his staff had fallen seriously ill and all were able to return to work on the Monday after.
Other countries have reported similar problems. In Sweden’s Sörmland and Gävleborg regions, health authorities temporarily paused vaccinations after a quarter of workers injected with the AstraZeneca shot called in sick the following day, but added the programme would resume with the same vaccine the following week.
In south-west France, a hospital in Périgueux asked in an open letter that the AstraZeneca vaccine be replaced with shots from Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer after 50% to 70% of injected staff experienced side-effects.
At a general hospital in the Austrian capital, Vienna, 500 members of staff signed a protest letter after finding out they would receive the AstraZeneca shot rather than the BioNTech/Pfizer one.
Limited data from AstraZeneca’s early trials and some misleading reporting in German media have also fuelled scepticism among health workers, with authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia complaining that 600 scheduled appointments were skipped between 10 and 15 February.
AstraZeneca has been shown to be about 60% effective in trials, while studies point to about 95% efficacy for the BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The British vaccine has the advantage of not requiring deep-freeze storage, however, and the company’s chief medical officer says it is 100% effective at preventing death and severe illness with Covid-19.
Several surveys suggest large parts of the public in Germany and other European countries remain cautious about taking up the offer of a vaccine more generally, though confidence levels have risen considerably in recent weeks.