AZ COVID jab efficacy debate is hindering EU’s vaccine drive

Resourceful or risky-The UKs controversial COVID-19 vaccine strategy

The spat between the EU and AstraZeneca over access to the company’s COVID-19 shot led to scathing remarks about its efficacy that now threaten to undermine the EU’s vaccination targets. 

The European Commission approved AZ’s AZD1222 vaccine for use in the EU in all adults aged over 18 at the end of January, more than a month after it was given a green light in the UK, but it seems people in some EU countries are reluctant to receive it and even deliberately missing appointments.

Several countries – including Germany – have approved AZD1222 only for use in people under 65, for example, while France‘s President  Emmanuel Macron memorably described it as “quasi ineffective” for people over that age threshold.

Now, there are reports of AZ’s vaccine languishing on the shelves in Germany as the public misses appointments in the hope of holding out for one of the other vaccines approved in the EU – from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna – that are viewed as being much more protective.

It’s a major turnaround from a few weeks ago when the EU was clamouring for access to the shot as its vaccination programme fell behind Israel, the UK, the US and other countries around the world – something that critics have blamed on the European Commission’s centralised procurement process.

Only 150,000 out of 1.5 million doses of AZD1222 delivered to Germany had been used ahead of the weekend, according to local media reports, which have also suggested AZ's shot may be more likely to cause side effects. said that while Germany’s government has said that everyone in the country who wants a jab will be offered one by September, this could be set back by up to two months unless millions of people are prepared to get AZD1222.

The news service added that just three to five people were turning up per hour at a vaccination site in Berlin’s disused Tegel airport, where only the AZ shot is available. Initially, Berlin was the only state in Germany to allow people to choose their vaccine, but that right has now been revoked and the pubic have to accept whichever jab they are offered.

An official spokesman for the German government attempted to restore confidence today, tweeting that AZD1222 is “highly effective...prevents many infections and protects against serious illness".

New UK data released today has shown that four weeks after a dose of either the AZ or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines reduces the chances of hospitalisation by 81%.

At last count, Germany had provided at least a first dose to around 6% of its population – roughly in line with the rest of the EU27 – while the UK has achieved that milestone in 26%, more than 17 million people.

A Bloomberg report citing health ministry figures last week said that 85% of available Pfizer/BioNTech doses had been administered, along with around 29% of the Moderna vaccine, but that AZ usage was down at 9%.

It also reported that in France, the website where appointments are booked had hundreds of available slots for the AZ shot for healthcare professionals, but very few for the two other vaccines.

Last week, the EU ordered additional supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to boost supplies, taking the total for each to 500 million and 310 million, respectively, with delivered due before the end of the year.

AZ has agreed to supply 300 million doses by the end of June, but has said it will likely be 75 million short of that commitment because of production delays at plants in the Netherlands and Belgium.