France’s 55-year old prime minister received the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine on Friday just hours after the country’s health regulator advised against giving the drug to people under 55 over blood clot risks.
Mr Castex was administered the vaccine in front of the cameras in a bid to boost confidence in the jab, which is at a record low. Only 20 per cent of French say they would be prepared to take a dose of the Anglo-Swedish serum.
“I did not feel a thing even though I am a little squeamish,” Mr Castex said at a hospital outside Paris.
On Friday, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said she was ready to be vaccinated with AstraZeneca’s coronavirus jab if offered when it is her turn to be inoculated in a bid to reassure Germans of the vaccine’s efficacy following weeks of mixed messages across Europe.
“Yes I would take the AstraZeneca vaccine,” she said, adding however she “would like to wait until it’s my turn but I would in any case”.
Previously, she said she would not take the jab as at that time it was not recommended for Germans in her age group.
Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, made a similar statement on Friday, saying: “My age group is among those who are allowed to have the vaccine and yes, I will have the AstraZeneca.” He added that his son had already been given the jab in the UK.
The French National Authority for Health (HAS) said its recommendation to suspend vaccinations for those under 55 was based on the fact that blood clots in France and other European countries had only been seen in those aged under that age.
The French advice differs from the European Medicines Agency, which on Thursday concluded that the vaccine is safe for all age groups .
It came only weeks after President Emmanuel Macron fanned French scepticism of the vaccine by saying: "Everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older."
Since his comments in January, French reports of flu-like side-effects among dozens of health workers further tainted its image.
France only removed that restriction this month, leading to a surge in jabs.
In a statement on Friday, the French regulator said: “Given the data provided by the EMA, it is the HAS’s belief that vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine can resume immediately.”
“However, the EMA has identified a possible increased risk of (thrombosis) in people under 55 years old. The HAS recommends using the AstraZeneca vaccine at this stage only for people aged 55 and over, who represent the majority of priority people."
The health body said it would issue advice soon on whether people who have already had one dose of AstraZeneca should have a second one.
HAS head Dominique Le Guludec said such cases in those who had received the vaccine were “very rare” but also "serious”. She said that while waiting for additional information, those under 55 should be vaccinated with the three other products approved in France: Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
As of March 16, 25 such blood clot cases have been identified in Europe, resulting in nine deaths, among people under 55 years of age, “a majority of them women”, she added.
To date, just over 1.4m doses of the vaccine have been administered in France, which has suffered from a slow initial rollout and has – all vaccines combined – inoculated 5.7m people compared to 25 million in the UK. The number of people who have had blood clots after an AstraZeneca jab in France is as low as two.
It emerged that France's ambassador to the UK had the AstraZeneca jab in Britain three days ago, when it was still suspended. Catherine Colonna tweeted that the jab was "Done.Safely".
The country was one of more than a dozen European Union states that suspended use of the Anglo-Swedish vaccin e this week.
On Friday, Sweden's health agency said its suspension remained in place and that it would take “a couple of days” to decide what to do. Denmark said it would hold off until next week at least.
Italy announced that people who decline to receive an AstraZeneca jab will be given an alternative later on but that no doses would go to waste.
“If some people don’t show up, there will in any case be long waiting lists of people who hope and want to be vaccinated,” said Giovanni Rezza, a member of Italy’s health council.
Others including Spain, Luxembourg and the German region of Rhineland-Palatinate have also lifted their restrictions, with some resuming their rollout on Friday.
Just 12 per cent of the European Union population has been vaccinated, while more than half of its stockpile of around 15 million AstraZeneca jabs remain unused.
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