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1 March 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 2:36pm

Why are millions of doses of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines lying unused in EU countries?

Low take-up of the vaccine in Europe has followed weeks of misinformation from politicians and the media.

By Ido Vock

Last week, reports began to emerge that only a small fraction of the doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine distributed to EU member states were being used. For instance, the Times reported that only 400 of 3,800 daily appointments at Berlin’s Tegel airport, recently closed to flights and repurposed as a vaccination centre, were being filled. Naturally, as I want the jab, I went to Tegel to try my luck.

If only a tenth of daily appointments were really being filled, I reasoned, surely they would have no problem giving spare doses to people who turn up towards the end of the day. After all, successful vaccine programmes such as Israel’s and Britain’s sometimes give out leftover doses to avoid waste. 

Unfortunately, my ambition to get immunised came up against German Beamtenmentalität, or bureaucratic mentality. Bored-looking security guards outside Tegel – of which I saw more over roughly half an hour than patients arriving – told my companion and I in no uncertain terms that we would not be getting a vaccine.

Tegel is not an isolated case in Germany. The German health ministry said last week that it had used just 15 per cent of the AstraZeneca doses it has received as people across the country refuse the jab. In Saxony, the German Red Cross told the news programme ZDF Heute that only 20 to 30 appointments were being booked for AstraZeneca jabs daily in the state. 

Across Europe, a similar story is playing out. France had issued just 16 per cent of its AstraZeneca doses as of 25 February, Italy a fifth and Spain a third. By contrast, uptake of the Pfizer jab hovers around 80 per cent, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency. 

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[See also: International coronavirus vaccine tracker]

Part of the problem is that many European countries, including Germany and France, have chosen to restrict the use of the vaccine to under-65s because of a lack of clinical trial data on its effectiveness among the elderly, although the EU’s European Medicines Agency has approved the jab for all age groups. Some German officials are now calling for the national regulator to update its guidance and approve the vaccine for all age groups. 

Keeping parallel lists of people to invite for an injection may have complicated the logistical task of administration. But possibly equally significant have been weeks of misleading headlines and comments from political leaders.

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First, a widely reported story in Germany’s leading financial daily, the Handelsblatt, suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine was semi-useless among the elderly. Although later shown to be misleading, the story had the effect of entrenching the idea that AstraZeneca was clearly a second-class vaccine to be avoided. This may have partly led to, for instance, the deputy chairman of a German police union claiming that police officers should get the “best possible vaccine” – in other words, not AstraZeneca, which police have reportedly been refusing. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has since attempted to counter vaccine hesitancy among her compatriots, telling citizens: “this is a safe and highly effective vaccine”. 

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, subsequently cast aspersions on the effectiveness of the vaccine, infamously claiming last month that “the real problem on AstraZeneca is that it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to… everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older”. He has now changed his tune, latterly claiming that he would take the vaccine if offered to him.

AstraZeneca would not, on its own, solve the EU’s shambolic vaccine roll-out, in which the bloc has administered 7 doses per 100 people, compared to 23 in the US and 31 in the UK, according to figures collated by Our World in Data, a project at Oxford University. But in the wake of a raucous dispute between the UK and EU after Brussels demanded that AstraZeneca divert supply from the UK to uphold its commitments to the bloc, it is difficult not to see a bleak irony in weeks of misinformation resulting in European citizens not taking the jab. 

Meanwhile, staff at Tegel administered only 405 doses on the day I visited.

[See also: Why is France getting Covid-19 vaccination so wrong?]