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France has acknowledged the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine has an “image problem” that must be addressed after top European officials including Emmanuel Macron raised doubts over its effectiveness, a move partially blamed on the EU’s stuttered vaccination rollout.
The bloc’s most senior official, Ursula von der Leyen, also said she would take the jab “without a second thought” in an attempt to reassure citizens amid concern over the slow pace of the programme.
“The [Astrazeneca] vaccine has been carefully tested, found safe and effective and approved,” the European Commission president said in an interview with the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.
“I would take the AstraZeneca vaccine without a second thought, just like Moderna’s and BioNTech-Pfizer’s products.”
On Tuesday, the French health ministry acknowledged that the number of AstraZeneca injections was “quite low”, with only 107,000 first jabs offered in two weeks, Le Telegramme reported.
French officials said they would “use all possible levers” to restore the reputation of the vaccine, which they said suffered from an “image problem”.
They also emphasised the side effects were “minor and benign” after hospital staff and other frontline health workers complained of feeling unwell.
Some have reported symptoms including a high temperature or headache, but officials stressed they were normal side effects and usually go within a day.
Take-up of the Astrazeneca vaccine has not been helped by Emmanuel Macron, who last month claimed it was “quasi-ineffective” for the over-65s.
Germany and a host of other European nations have also appeared reluctant to offer the Anglo-Swedish firm’s vaccine to their oldest citizens, saying there was a lack of data.
However recent studies have shown that the Astrazeneca jab is effective in older people.
Professor Alain Fischer, who leads the French vaccination strategy, has said the Astrazeneca jab is “not a second-class vaccine”.
Efforts to coordinate the EU’s rollout programme got off to a tricky start over suggestions, denied by Astrazeneca, that the company had prioritised the UK in delivering the vaccine.
In Germany, a preference for the German-designed Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has led to a growing number of unused AstraZeneca doses.
On Wednesday it was revealed Germany has administered only 15 per cent of the AstraZeneca vaccines it has available. Officials are now focused on ensuring the remainder do not go to waste.
EU leaders will meet on Thursday to inject new energy into the bloc’s vaccination efforts.
Reuters reported that delivery volumes to the EU were expected to be at half the level AstraZeneca had been contracted to supply in the second quarter.
The European Commission has sealed deals with several companies for well over two billion vaccine doses – far more than the EU population of around 450 million – but only three have been authorised: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine could be approved next month.
Additional reporting by agencies