Four out of five of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses delivered to EU countries are yet to be used on a patient, a Guardian investigation has found, as the German chancellor Angela Merkel admitted to an “acceptance problem” among Europeans being offered the jab.
Using data extracted from the European Centre for Disease Prevention Control (ECDC) and other official sources, it is estimated that 4,849,752 of the 6,134,707 doses distributed among the 27 member states have not yet been administered.
The decision by authorities in France, Germany, Poland and Italy to recommend use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine only for people aged under 65 is likely to be a significant factor in its slow administration with authorities failing to redirect jabs to younger people.
In an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Merkel conceded that the vaccine was also being rejected by those concerned over its efficacy and safety following a slew of bad publicity.
“There is … currently an acceptance problem with the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Merkel said. “AstraZeneca is a reliable vaccine, effective and safe, approved by the European Medicines Agency and recommended in Germany up to the age of 65 years. All the authorities tell us that this vaccine can be trusted. As long as vaccines are as scarce as they are now, you cannot choose what to vaccinate with.”
Asked whether she would volunteer to be administered with the vaccine, Merkel added: “I am 66 years old and I do not belong to the recommended group for AstraZeneca.”
Data analysed by the Guardian, while vulnerable to a short time lag in reporting by member states, highlights some eye-catching discrepancies between the amount of AstraZeneca vaccine available in member states and its administration to the population.
Belgium has received 201,600 AstraZeneca doses but administered just 9,832 of the jabs (4%), according to the ECDC, an EU agency.
Bulgaria received 117,600 doses but has administered 2,035 (1.73%) while Germany has had 1,452,000 delivered but administered just 189,206 jabs (13%). According to the ECDC, Italy has had 499,200 doses delivered but its health practitioners have given just 96,621 jabs (19%)
Among the most high-profile interventions in the vaccine debate in recent weeks has been by French president, Emmanuel Macron, who suggested without substance that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective”.
France has not submitted data to the ECDC on how many of its 1,137,600 doses of AstraZeneca jabs it has administered but figures provided by the vaccine tracker website Covidtracker.fr estimates it at just 125,859 (11%).
The EU’s vaccination rollout has been heavily criticised due to a lack of supply in recent months, with shortfalls in production reported by AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer.
However the data suggests pejorative comments about AstraZeneca, along with the decision by some regulatory authorities to recommend use for only the younger age groups ahead of fresh data being available, has also had a significant impact.
The European Medicines Agency approved AstraZeneca for all age groups but some national bodies had advised against use in the older age ranges given the lack of data available on efficacy at the time.
Dr June Raine, the chief executive of the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, defended its decision to approve for all ages at the time, noting that “current evidence does not suggest any lack of protection against Covid-19 in people aged 65”, adding that it produced “a strong immune response in the over-65s”. The vaccine is in widespread use in the UK along with that produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, with preliminary data showing high levels of efficacy among the elderly.
Prof Thomas Mertens, who chairs Germany’s standing commission on vaccination which advised Merkel’s government on not using AstraZeneca in the older age groups in January, told Radio 4’s Today problem that lack of uptake in his country was “a problem no doubt at the moment”.
He said: “It is true, unfortunately. We are working quite hard on this point to try and convince people to accept the vaccine and to build up again the trust in the vaccine in the population. But as you know this is some kind of psychological problem too and it will unfortunately take some time to reach this goal.”
Asked whether his committee’s advice was to blame, he told the BBC: “It may be part of the problem although we always stated it had nothing to do with the safety of the vaccine; we never criticised the vaccine for being unsafe.
“We stated that the amount of data for this group of elderly people was not really great, it was quite small at the time, when we had to give the recommendation. But I don’t think that was the major problem. The major problem was the news spread about the efficacy of the vaccine being much lower than the mRNA vaccines [for example Pfizer’s] that started earlier.”