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Fears And Misconceptions Over AstraZeneca Vaccine In France Persist

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

OK. Europe's Medicines Agency says there is no current evidence of a link between AstraZeneca's COVID vaccine and problems with blood clots. But fears and misconceptions about that vaccine persist. Just this morning, Ireland's immunization authority recommended a temporary stop to using the vaccine. Some in Germany are refusing to take the vaccine. And the same is true in France, where roughly 6% of the population has now been vaccinated. As Rebecca Rosman reports, doctors are blaming French politicians for hurting the vaccine's image.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: Dr. Luc Duquesnel breathed a sigh of relief late last month when his hospital in northwest France finally got its first shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine. But when 15% of people didn't show up for scheduled appointments, he started shaking his head. Did they forget? No, he says.

LUC DUQUESNEL: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: They were scared off by the headlines in the local paper. Around 20% of the staff at a nearby hospital had experienced side effects after taking the vaccine, flu-like symptoms that lasted one to two days.

DUQUESNEL: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Duquesnel says these kinds of side effects are completely normal, especially in younger people. But the government failed to communicate this to the public early on. It's the latest in a series of poor government communications that have left many in France feeling skeptical about the AstraZeneca vaccine.

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OLIVIER VERAN: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Like when in January, France's health minister, Olivier Veran, said the government was holding off on recommending AstraZeneca for people 65 and over because of the lack of specific data for this age group. French President Emmanuel Macron himself called the vaccine, quote, "quasi-ineffective" for the elderly.

CATHERINE HILL: I think the French authorities are scared of many things. And I think they just made a wrong inference.

ROSMAN: Catherine Hill is an epidemiologist at Gustave Roussy Hospital just south of Paris. She says the decision was based on little evidence and poor judgment and that they've used the AstraZeneca vaccine on older populations in the U.K. and seen that it worked. Last week, the French government finally reversed course and approved AstraZeneca for people of all ages. Dr. Hill says this and the fact that vaccinations are speeding up is a good sign.

HILL: Even vaccinating on Saturdays and even Sundays. Wow (laughter). What an effort.

ROSMAN: But she says the government needs to do more and fast if it wants to shake AstraZeneca's bad reputation. Around a million doses are still waiting to be administered. And despite being eligible, only a third of France's hospital workers have been vaccinated against COVID-19. They're amongst the most skeptical of AstraZeneca.

THIERRY AMOUROUX: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Thierry Amouroux of the SNPI, one of France's largest nurse's unions, says his members deserve only the best vaccines. And AstraZeneca, with only a 73% protection rate compared to Moderna and Pfizer's 94% protection, doesn't measure up. Health experts have dismissed this idea, arguing it could lead to vaccine shopping. That is people waiting to get the vaccine of their choice rather than what's available, thereby slowing down vaccination campaigns.

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ALAIN FISCHER: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Alain Fischer, France's vaccine czar, reinforced the point on French radio. "It's not a second-rate vaccine," he said, when pressed about AstraZeneca, adding "it's been proven to prevent 80% of hospitalizations and nearly 100% of COVID-19 deaths." For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.