EU leaders accused of risking lives with UK vaccine attacks

By: AFP      Published: 10:25 PM, 3 Feb, 2021
EU leaders accused of risking lives with UK vaccine attacks

Leaders in Europe are recklessly endangering their own public's health by using self-serving point-scoring to attack Britain's coronavirus vaccine rollout, UK health experts say.

In Britain, such attacks risk resonating with ethnic minorities who are disproportionately at risk of dying from Covid-19 but who have been subject to disinformation from religious hardliners.

But France in particular needs to be wary of undermining confidence given that surveys show it has the highest levels of vaccine hesitancy in Europe, according to experts responding to recent comments from President Emmanuel Macron and others.

"This can only be negative on the vaccine takeup in France, in Germany and others. This is bad for public health," Kent Woods, a former chief of both the UK and European Union medicines regulators, told AFP.

"Forget the politics. This is a threat to public health and people in the public eye need to be very cautious in the messages they make," he said.

"The key point to make is that the views coming out from politicians in Europe are in striking contrast to the scientific view reached by the European regulator, which has representation from all 27 EU member states. 

"These are politically driven rather than scientifically driven."

Macron 'ill-founded and inaccurate

Macron said in interviews published last Friday that the Oxford University-AstraZeneca jab underpinning the UK campaign was "quasi-ineffective" for those over 65.

He was echoing claims that first aired in Germany but which have been contradicted by the European Medicines Agency. 

"This is the very age range we need to get this out to. It seems bizarre to exclude the very patients who need it most," Woods said.

On Monday, France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune said Britain was taking "a lot of risks" with its rollout, highlighting its extended gap of up to 12 weeks between first and second doses.

However, UK scientists back the government's plan as a means of inoculating as many high-risk people as possible, and the efficacy of one dose was vindicated by new research published on Tuesday by Oxford University.

Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said Macron's intervention was "extremely unhelpful, ill-founded and inaccurate".

"It's not going to encourage the French population to line up in a queue," Head said. "I assume they're wrapped up in the recent history of EU-UK politics rather than any real public confidence issues.

"They'll be picked up by the anti-vaxxer groups who do their utmost to undermine public confidence with social media posts and memes."

UK experts took issue also with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen who, in defending the EU's slow rollout, implied Tuesday that Britain had cut corners in its vaccines approval process.

"The waters have got really muddied," Head argued, after Brussels locked horns with AstraZeneca and the British government over the UK-based company's vaccine delivery schedule.

"We've had so much good news on the vaccination front that it would be a shame to spoil it with political posturing."

Devastating

There has been posturing too in Britain. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly boasted that the UK has far outstripped the rest of the EU in inoculation numbers, after going its own way during last year's tortuous negotiations on their Brexit divorce.

But the attacks emanating from leaders in Europe are of a different order, argued Agnes Arnold-Forster, a historian of healthcare at the University of Bristol.

"It's a risky strategy and can definitely elevate vaccine hesitancy," she told AFP.

"Absolutely, politicians should be very careful about their messaging. Anything you say about other countries' programmes are going to impact your own uptake."

In Britain, surveys suggest fundamentalist African-Christian groups, conservative Muslims and Orthodox Jews have proven most resistant to public health messaging and the vaccination drive.

Counterproductive messages from foreign leaders merely serve to accentuate their doubts, and risk prolonging the pandemic, according to Robert Dingwall, a professor of medical sociology at Nottingham Trent University.

But Dingwall, who has collaborated with French sociologists on research, said sceptics in France would also seize on their own leaders' words.

"It's important that people like Macron and Beaune think further ahead when (vaccine) take-up will become very important for the restoration of anything near normal life," he said.

"If France lags, that will have a devastating impact on the French economy."