International 20/03/2021

Boris Johnson and Jean Castex lead by example and get the AstraZeneca vaccine

France only recommends administering it to the over-55s and Finland suspends its use

3 min

LondonLeading by example. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his French counterpart Jean Castex received the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday in a bid to reassure the public about its safety. The two heads of government were given the vaccine a day after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) yesterday confirmed that it was "safe and effective ", allaying concerns about cases of thrombosis and blood clots. However, the EMA admitted that some rare episodes of vascular complications need to be further investigated.

Castex, the first to receive it at a military hospital near Paris, had not advanced his intentions until Thursday's EMA ruling. The gesture is a test of confidence in the Oxford product when the vaccination campaign needs to continue the most, especially in a country that has seen more than 30,000 cases in the past 24 hours and 16 departments, including the Paris area, have had to be partially re-confined. With his decision, Castex, 54, has broken the recommendation made earlier on Friday by the country's health authorities, who urged that the AstraZeneca vaccine should only be given to people over 55.

Johnson, for his part, did plan to get one. Amid the cascade of suspensions from up to 17 EU and non-EU countries, the British head of government defended its safety and announced in Parliament on Wednesday that he would "very soon" get it. Johnson is 56 years old, and given the UK's speed of delivery of at least the first dose - almost 50% of the population over the age of 16, 26 million people, have already received it - it was his turn before the end of March.

So, shortly after 6pm, he entered St Thomas' Hospital in central London, where he was treated in the intensive care unit last April after contracting covid. As he left the hospital, the premier told reporters following him: "I've literally felt nothing. So it's been very good, very quick and I can't recommend it highly enough. Everybody who gets the notification, please go and have your injection".

For Johnson to see Castex get the Oxford vaccine and not Sanofi's - a French fiasco - is a symbolic and political triumph for London. It should also serve to reinforce confidence in a made in Britain product that has suffered in recent weeks from very negative headlines, especially at the EU level. Not only because of the vascular problems detected but also because of supply problems, especially in the EU, despite the fact that since yesterday it has been known that the United Kingdom will also suffer a lack of supply during the four weeks of April.

On Friday evening, Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi, 73, said he intends to take the AstraZeneca vaccine as well, although he has not yet made an appointment to receive the injection.

UK misgivings

The British authorities feared that, following reports from Europe, which began to emerge on 7 March, the population would become reluctant to beget the AstraZeneca jab. So far, of the 26 million people who have begun the covid immunisation process, about 12 million have started with the Oxford vaccine, while the rest have received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Moderna, the third vaccine licensed in the UK, has yet to be deployed.

Francisca Dagama, a 50-yaer-old New Zealander who received the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday morning at a community centre in Mottingham in southwest London said she felt reassured. "I've been very anxious, which surprised me. But, of course, I have been affected by all the negative news of the last few days. Now I have to wait and see how it goes. Knowing that [Boris] Johnson was getting it today has given me confidence and encouragement".

The countries that have resumed vaccination with AstraZeneca today are Germany, France, Italy, Cyprus, Lithuania, Latvia and Bulgaria, while the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain will resume vaccination next week. Canada has also announced that it would resume the AstraZeneca vaccination campaign.

However, despite the EMA's favourable opinion - and amid growing concern about a possible third wave in Europe, with new lockdowns in Italy, France and Poland, where there have been 38% more new cases this week than last - Norway, Sweden and Denmark have said they will not use AstraZeneca's vaccine until their own independent scientific evaluations are completed.

The great paradox of the situation is that while governments in London and Paris, as well as other European capitals, are rushing to defend that AstraZeneca is safe, what is also definite, after being announced last week by the pharmaceutical company, is that between April and June the European Commission will receive one hundred million doses less than the company had committed to deliver.