France revises its vaccination campaign against Covid-19 after a stepwise strategy aimed at appeasing the world’s most vaccine-skeptical population fell flat in its first week.
The country has only vaccinated 350 people so far – compared to 1 million in the UK and 238,000 in Germany – although the government has received 500,000 doses of the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine and will receive a similar amount each week in January.
The situation puts pressure on President Emmanuel Macron and risks triggering another political fight over how the government has handled the pandemic. Opposition politicians have criticized the government for the way it has messed up supplies of masks and struggled to roll out mass tests last year.
Axel Kahn, a prominent French geneticist, this weekend called the slow start a “disaster” and accused excessive government bureaucracy, while the National Academy of Medicine, the organization of doctors, said he did not There was “more time to waste” given that around 300 people died from the virus every day in France.
The death toll from Covid-19 in the country is nearly 65,000 people to date. Despite two national lockdowns and ongoing restrictions, it has the highest number of cases in Western Europe, according to Johns Hopkins. The data.
Mr Macron reportedly said angrily to his government that “things have to change quickly and drastically and they will”, according to Sunday newspaper Sunday report
The government announced changes to its deployment strategy late last week, speeding up the schedule for administering doses to healthcare workers aged 50 and over from late February to today. He also reversed an earlier decision to rely heavily on family physicians to deliver the program, with Health Minister Olivier Véran promising to open mass vaccination centers “before February”.
France had initially planned to focus first on vaccinating the elderly in nursing homes, who are most at risk of death from coronavirus. But this posed logistical challenges, as nursing homes did not have the facilities to keep the BioNTech / Pfizer at the necessary ultra-low temperatures. Seniors were also required to have a consultation with a doctor and a waiting period of at least five days before being vaccinated.
France had set itself a goal of vaccinating 1 million people by the end of February and up to 20 million in the first half of the year. The government and outside advisers have advocated a phased approach to give regulators time to review additional vaccines and build public confidence.
Academic studies and polls have shown that the French are the most suspicious of all countries in the world with regard to vaccines, and especially worried about side effects. A 2018 Gallup-Wellcome Trust study found that one in three disagreed vaccines was safe, the highest percentage in the 140 countries studied.
Philippe Juvin, who heads the emergency department at the Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris and is also the mayor of a Paris suburb, criticized the government’s strategy. “The changes announced are still very insufficient: we must open the vaccination to a wider population now,” he told the FT this weekend.
“Going slowly does not build confidence – on the contrary, it supports the idea that there is something to fear. All of these excuses hide fundamental preparation problems.
Mr Juvin referred to Germany, where some 400 vaccination centers were planned, and said France needed similar facilities as soon as possible. “Germany ordered specialized freezers in November and obtained additional doses outside of the EU’s joint purchase agreement. Where are ours? “
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Sunday that it was unfair to judge the vaccination campaign after just one week and that he maintained the choice to start with the elderly in care homes.
The cautious approach seems to be working against them. Only 40% of French people polled by Ipsos last week said they plan to be vaccinated, up from 54% in October and 59% in August.
Distrust of vaccines took root in France around 2009 after the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 was deemed mismanaged, said Jocelyn Raude, sociologist at EHESP, the French school of public health.
“The government is terrified of the anti-vaccine movement and has been marked by the memory of the failure of the H1N1 flu,” he said. As a result, public messages to date on the Covid-19 vaccine have focused too much on the potential risks and unknowns and not enough on the benefits of the vaccine.
“There is a desire to be transparent and reassuring, but they have gone too far with precautions,” added Dr Raude.
Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said she was “quite sympathetic” to the approach to France given the “hypercritical” environment there.
“We have to remember that the way this is handled will be remembered by the public for better or for worse. It should not be taken lightly at all in order to go as quickly as possible. “
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan and Joe Miller