PARIS, March 19 (Reuters) – France’s medical regulator approved the resumption of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccinations on Friday, but in a break with guidance from the European watchdog said it should be given only to people aged 55 and older.
Medical staff told Reuters the French recommendation, which came just weeks after Paris had initially said the Anglo-Swedish vaccine should be used only on people under 65, risked confusing the public and deepening public mistrust in the vaccine.
On Thursday, the European Medicines Agency said the vaccine was safe for all age groups. It said it was convinced the benefits outweighed the risks after reports of rare instances of blood clotting.
However, France’s National Authority for Health (HAS) took note of evidence that the clotting affected younger people mostly, whose risk of dying from COVID-19 was lower than the elderly, and departed from the EMA’s line.
EMA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the French position.
“When it comes to AstraZeneca, I have to say I sympathize with those who struggle to make sense of it all,” said Marie-Louise Pradin, a doctor based in the northern city of Lille.
“The reports of adverse effects don’t look good. But we, as professionals, know they are rare and not necessarily linked to the vaccine. Now, the HAS puts out this advice. I know many patients will just refuse to take it,” she said.
France was one of more than a dozen European Union states that suspended use of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine this week.
An EMA review covering 20 million people in Britain and the European Economic Area, which links 30 European countries, included seven cases of blood clots in multiple blood vessels and 18 cases of a rare condition that is difficult to treat called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST).
The HAS said it would review its opinion soon as new data came in. Guidance would also be given soon to those under 55 who have already received a first dose of AstraZeneca, it added.
The new restrictions add yet another complication to France’s troubled vaccination rollout, which has been beset by red tape, supply difficulties and public mistrust.
Prime Minister Jean Castex received an AstraZeneca shot on Friday in a bid to shore up public faith in the vaccine. It may take time.
“The AstraZeneca vaccine is such an important part of our vaccination campaign. There is no other alternative. We can’t do without it,” said Jacques Battistoni, head of a general practitioners’ union.
France has so far delivered 5.7 million first doses – roughly 8% of the population – compared with more than 25 million in Britain and more than 100 million in the United States.
Pensioner Damien Gander said he harboured no doubts about the safety of the AstraZeneca shot as he received the injection.
“Since the beginning, I have believed the vaccine is safe. People are in a panic but there are always side effects.” (Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont and Benoit Van Overstraeten; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie and Angus MacSwan)