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In France, we are furious about the AstraZeneca suspension and Macron’s confrontational power play

Our president appears to have little interest in promoting the products of Brexit Britain, no matter how important they are to defeating Covid-19

Nabila Ramdani
Wednesday 17 March 2021 17:16 GMT
Ursula von der Leyen threatens to restrict EU vaccine exports

Absurdist comedy has a long history in France, and there is every reason to suspect it is being revived as the country muddles its way through the coronavirus pandemic.

There was certainly black humour in the way prime minister Jean Castex appeared on live television on Tuesday evening and proudly announced that he was looking forward to “very quickly” receiving a first shot of a vaccine that might be described as coming from Oxbridge.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca medicine was developed by scientists at Oxford University in partnership with those at AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biotech company that is headquartered in Cambridge, England.

Such links with Britain’s outstanding academic tradition would inspire trust in even the most determined sceptics around the world, and Castex had earlier said that France “must have confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine”.

This is why it had already been given to around a million French people, and was considered a crucial part of the route out of lockdown, and all the crippling social and economic problems it has created.

Yet in his TV address to the nation, Castex was forced to say that he would have to hang on because AstraZeneca shots had been suspended in France because of possible links with blood clotting.

“I have decided that it would be wise if I was vaccinated very quickly once the suspension is, as I hope, lifted and all the guarantees are given, to show my fellow citizens that the vaccine is the way out of the crisis and can be taken in all security,” Castex said.

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Unlike his colleagues, Castex is not an elected politician but a very capable technocrat who has no reason to play cynical games with public health. The same cannot be said of President Emmanuel Macron – an increasingly confrontational European Union power player who has little interest in promoting the products of Brexit Britain, no matter how important they are to defeating Covid-19.

Macron originally caused outrage in late January when he wrongly suggested that the Oxford vaccine was ineffective for those aged over 65, and that even those over 60 should “not be encouraged” by results. He then backtracked, saying he would go to court to get more supplies of AstraZeneca.

After authorising usage, Macron then performed yet another spectacular U-turn, almost certainly because German chancellor Angela Merkel – his chief EU ally – had suspended the use of AstraZeneca.

The scientific evidence for the suspension was negligible – leading French doctors united with health authority chiefs to say the temporary ban was entirely political, and even when lifted it would cause “catastrophic” damage to the vaccination programme. In the words of MP Nicolas Dupont-Aignan: “The executive sails blindly, no longer thinking for itself and only knows how to follow in Germany’s footsteps”.

Opinion polls in France continually point to public distrust of immunisation programmes. Results of one released by Ipsos in January found just 40 per cent of French adults intended to be vaccinated against Covid-19, making the country the most vaccine-sceptic in the world. This compared to 80 per cent in China – where the coronavirus pandemic began in December 2019 – and 77 per cent in the UK.

This is despite France being the home of Louis Pasteur, the 19th-century scientist who developed some of the world’s first vaccines. Since Pasteur carried out his ground-breaking work, there have certainly been scandals linked to immunisation programmes. One of the most recent was in 2009, when many of those receiving a vaccine aimed at combatting a swine flu pandemic complained of serious side-effects.

Yet it is still baffling that people allow this scepticism to stand in the way of a return to a relatively normal life following the disaster caused by Covid-19.

Sandrine, a 56-year-old Paris legal secretary who agreed to discuss her medical history without revealing her surname, told me: “It is all about mistrust with politicians who make decisions too quickly, and without really understanding the science. The coronavirus vaccines have been developed far too quickly, and that is why a lot of people do not want them.”

Such thinking is extremely common in the French capital, where intensive care units are overflowing with coronavirus patients, and the number of new infections continues to rocket.

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There is a 6pm curfew, and Castex has signalled that new restrictions are likely for greater Paris in the coming days and weeks. He described the situation around the whole of France as “worrying and critical”.

Across the English Channel in Britain, there is certainly far more optimism. Infection numbers are well down, and AstraZeneca is a key component of the strategy to get the country out of lockdown.

The vaccine is firmly supported by Emer Cooke, executive director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which originally authorised the use of AstraZeneca for the 27 member EU states, including France and Germany.

Referring to alleged blood clots, Cooke said on Tuesday: “At present there is no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions, they have not come up in the clinical trials and they are not listed or expected side events with this vaccine.”

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