Britain defends Oxford vaccine roll-out among all ages amid European scepticism

The EU regulator had approved the vaccine for all ages.
The EU regulator had approved the vaccine for all ages.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Britain’s health minister on Wednesday (Feb 3) defended the country’s vaccine roll-out strategy after scepticism emerged in Europe, saying the science supported a decision to give the shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca to all age groups.

France, Belgium and Germany are among the European Union countries to recommend that Oxford’s vaccine is only given to under 65s, while French President Emmanuel Macron was quoted on Friday as saying that the shot appeared “quasi-ineffective” among those over 65.

That is strongly disputed by the vaccine’s developers and the British government, and health minister Matt Hancock defended Britain’s approach when asked about Mr Macron’s comment.

“My view is that we should listen to the scientists... and the science on this one was already pretty clear, and then with this publication overnight is absolutely crystal clear that the Oxford vaccine not only works but works well,” health secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio, referring to new data from Oxford.

That preprint study showed that the Oxford vaccine had 76 per cent efficacy after a first shot in the 3 months until a second shot was given, and higher efficacy if the second dose was given at least 12 weeks after the first, supporting Britain’s decision to extend the gap between doses. 

However, the study did not give extra direct evidence of efficacy in older people.

Asked about Mr Macron’s comment, Oxford Vaccine Group chief Andrew Pollard said: “I don’t understand what that statement means.” “The point is that we have rather less data in older adults, which is why people have less certainty about the level of protection.

“But we have good immune responses in older adults very similar to younger adults, the protection that we do see is in exactly the same direction, and of a similar magnitude.”

Britain is well ahead of France and other EU countries in the pace of its roll-out, having approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot earlier and made the change to dosing guidelines to give some protection to more people in a quicker time frame.

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune defended the comparatively slower pace of vaccines roll-out, saying Britain had taken “enormous risks”, for instance, in using the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot on older people.

“You see, the United Kingdom has taken fewer precautions than ourselves,” Mr Beaune told LCI TV on Wednesday.

Separately, AstraZeneca research chief Mene Pangalos said on Wednesday that the drugmaker and Oxford University aim to produce the next generation of Covid-19 vaccines that will protect against variants as soon as the autumn.

Asked when AstraZeneca could produce a next generation vaccine to tackle new variants, AstraZeneca research chief Mene Pangalos said “as rapidly as possible”.

“We’re working very hard and we’re already talking about not just the variants that we have to make in laboratories, but also the clinical studies that we need to run,” he said in a briefing with media. “We’re very much aiming to try and have something ready by the autumn, so this year.”

The partners are getting close to having data on the efficacy of their COVID-19 vaccine on older adults, Prof Pollard said.