The short-lived suspensions of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine by several European countries over fears of blood clotting may have increased vaccine hesitancy, just as a third wave of infections hits Europe.
In mid-March, several countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, suspended the vaccine’s use pending investigations into isolated cases of bleeding and blood clots. Many countries have since resumed their roll-outs after the European Medicines Agency concluded that the vaccine was safe and effective.
However, trust in the vaccine has waned in the European Union. More than half of people in France, Germany and Spain surveyed during the latest controversy believe that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is unsafe – an increase from February – according to a YouGov poll published this week.
“I am afraid that this will have a disastrous impact,” says Caroline Goujon at Montpellier Infectious Disease Research Institute in France, just when full acceptance from the population is needed “more than ever”.
Coronavirus cases are rising in much of Europe. “We have now seen three consecutive weeks of growth in covid-19 cases with over 1.2 million new cases reported last week across Europe,” said Hans Kluge at the World Health Organization during a press conference on 18 March.
The rate at which people in the EU are being vaccinated is lagging far behind those in the US, UK and Israel. The EU as a whole had administered around 13 doses of a covid-19 vaccine per 100 people as of 20 March, compared with 36 in the US, 44 in the UK and 112 in Israel.
Scepticism around vaccines in general is prevalent in Europe. A 2016 survey of 65,819 people across 67 countries found that seven of the 10 countries with the least confidence in vaccine safety were in Europe. France had the highest level of scepticism with regard to vaccine safety of all the countries surveyed.
The picture is similar for covid-19 vaccines. A survey in February found that just 40 per cent of people in France said they would take one.
France has a history of negative attitudes around vaccine safety and mistrust in health authorities. In the 1990s, it was revealed that French government officials had knowingly distributed blood products that were infected with HIV. In 1998, France temporarily banned a hepatitis B vaccine due to isolated cases of multiple sclerosis. An investigation found no causal link, but concerns lingered.
Vaccine controversies have led to almost one in four family doctors in France believing that some vaccines recommended by French authorities aren’t useful.
Nevertheless, a third wave of lockdowns may change attitudes. Naveed Sattar at the University of Glasgow, UK, suspects that hesitancy about coronavirus vaccines will be outweighed by the desire to see restrictions eased. “People are desperate to get their normal lives back and vaccinations are seen as the best way to achieve this,” he says.