COVID-19 vaccinations now ‘alarmingly low’ in Europe

COVID-19 vaccinations now ‘alarmingly low’ in Europe

COVID-19 vaccination rates have fallen precipitously in Europe and should be ramped up this autumn so they are at least in line with influenza vaccine uptake.

That is the conclusion of a report issued by the newly-launched COVID Transition Initiative (CTI), a group made up of leading experts, patient advocates, and policymakers, which notes that the COVID-19 vaccination rate was just 12% of eligible patients aged 60 and over in the 2023/24 season.

According to Professor Roberta Siliquini, CTI member and president of the Italian Society of Hygiene, Preventive Medicine and Public Health, that is far too low to keep society’s most vulnerable people protected from COVID-19.

The steep decline has been attributed to ‘fatigue’ about the virus among the public and a sense that it is no longer anything to worry about since the end of the pandemic was declared. That view may have been compounded by the lack of a spike in cases last year – which could be in part because of lingering immunity from prior vaccinations or infections.

In 2023, Italy alone recorded 10,000 deaths and 80,000 hospitalisations from COVID-19, which nearly all affected vulnerable individuals, such as the elderly and those with chronic illnesses, according to Siliquini.

“We must set a target of 75% uptake, just like for seasonal influenza,” she said, and progress needs to be measured with “consistent and timely data reporting.” Last year, Italy’s vaccination rate was 13%.

It is now acknowledged that COVID-19 is broadly similar in scale and impact to influenza, which remains a persistent public health problem, so regular COVID-19 vaccination campaigns should be organised in European countries in line with national recommendations and with a particular focus on the protection of at-risk groups and prevention of ‘long COVID’ cases.

“One concern I have is Europe’s reported over-reliance on a single vaccine type,” said Siliquini, noting that according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), 97% of doses administered in the 2023/24 season were the same shot – Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA-based Comirnaty Omicron XBB.1.5.

“This could expose Europe to potential supply chain issues and restricts options for individuals and [healthcare professionals] to access the vaccine technology best suited for them,” she added.

The CTI is funded by vaccine manufacturer Novavax, whose protein-based Nuvaxovid XBB.1.5 shot was cleared last October in the EU, but the group insists that it operates independently and the report represents the views of its stakeholders.

One possible solution to the declining vaccination rate could come in combined COVID-19 flu vaccines that are in development almost across the board by the major vaccine manufacturers, but those are unlikely to be ready in time for the coming 2024/25 season. Depending on pricing, they may also struggle to displace flu-only shots in national campaigns.