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Vaccines are a medical marvel. They are credited with saving more lives than any other human innovation after clean water. The astonishingly rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines should be celebrated as a triumph of ingenuity. And yet many Europeans are shunning the shots. These vaccine sceptics are endangering their neighbours, undermining the recovery and exposing an awkward European anti-science strain.
The EU’s vaccine rollout was already stuttering last month when delays in deliveries of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs meant the bloc only administered a fraction of its planned inoculations. If that was a misfortune, the latest vaccine crisis looks more like carelessness.
While deliveries are still sluggish, take-up of available AstraZeneca doses is pitiful. Many people are skipping scheduled vaccine appointments, hoping for Pfizer shots instead. Almost unbelievably, scepticism is highest among healthcare workers.
The resistance to AstraZeneca is particularly fierce in Germany, where just 187,000 of the 1.5 million available shots had been delivered by the end of last week. While Germany’s top vaccines agency, the Paul Ehrlich Institute, confirmed anecdotal reports of occasional side-effects, such as shivers or fever, it nonetheless says the vaccine is highly effective and describes reactions to it as short-lived.
Part of the hesitancy is down to recent politics. Last month’s unseemly spat between the European commission and AstraZeneca over the delayed deliveries stirred up antipathy for the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, by publicly trashing the firm, the commission undermined trust in the vaccines.
This was compounded by confusion over AstraZeneca’s efficacy. Many national regulators limited the jab to under-65s, citing a lack of trial data – even though the European Medicines Agency approved it last month for all adults. That caution nonetheless stoked doubt on the vaccine’s safety. The risks were then misrepresented in German media, and later by the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
However, a good chunk of the vaccine scepticism is down to deeper cultural, social and political reasons. Europe has a long and ignoble anti-vaxxer tradition, which is often fuelled by anti-establishment politics.
Even though Europe dominates the global vaccine industry, including the Covid-19 shots, vaccines are widely distrusted. A 2019 Wellcome Global Monitor survey showed that only 59% of people in western Europe thought vaccines were safe, compared with 79% worldwide. France had the highest levels of distrust: one in three people said vaccines were unsafe.
The consequences were already clear before coronavirus. Childhood vaccination rates were falling across the EU, risking the return of preventable diseases. The EU recognised the problem, setting up the European Joint Action on Vaccination to work on a standard protocol for responding to an outbreak alert from another country.
Before being confirmed as European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen promised to “prioritise communication on vaccination, explaining the benefits and combating the myths, misconceptions and scepticism that surround the issue”. Her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, blamed “stupid mistrust” of vaccines for deaths from preventable diseases and warned that those refusing immunisations were “playing with fire”.
But since healthcare policy is overseen by national governments rather than the EU, Brussels is only a cheerleader for national vaccine policies. A 2018 report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) found only 10 of 16 countries had an immunisation information system (IIS) to record the reasons people gave for not vaccinating.
Why, more than two centuries after Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine, are so many Europeans sceptical about vaccines? A 2019 Eurobarometer survey shed some light on this issue. It found that about 48% of people in the EU believe that vaccines can often produce serious side-effects, 38% think they can cause the diseases against which they protect, and 31% are convinced that they can weaken the immune system. All these beliefs are incorrect.
Prof Heidi Larson, who runs the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says vaccine scepticism is bound up with more general anxieties about the world and our place in it. In Europe, its insidious rise is fuelled by disinformation and amplified by social media.
The extraordinary nature of the coronavirus pandemic has generated a new strain of conspiracy theories. Enforced isolation, insecurity and uncertainty have fed into Facebook stories about Bill Gates slipping microchips into vaccine shots.
Political upheaval also drives fringe views – and the EU has seen its fair share of that in recent years. Trust in science is linked to trust in institutions such as government. The drift towards extreme, anti-establishment politics includes populists who rant about the evils of vaccines.
This was the case in Italy, where the two biggest political parties, the far-right Lega and leftist Five Star Movement, both stoked fearmongering about vaccines. France may be the country of immunology pioneer Louis Pasteur, but it has a raging anti-vaxx movement, tied to Marine Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left.
Ministers and officials across the EU are now pleading with people to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine if it is offered. The German health minister, Jens Spahn, last week said it was a “privilege” to be offered an injection with the “safe and effective” AstraZeneca jab. The French health minister, Olivier Véran, got the jab live on television. People in Belgium have been warned against “vaccine shopping”: they will not be allowed to choose which jab is offered.
But even if the EU’s vaccine campaign gets back on track, this crisis has exposed long-term challenges. For too long, European leaders have failed to confront anti-vaxx sentiment, allowing dangerous ideas to fester. This has fed casual conspiracy theories about big pharma and global elites, undermining confidence in modern medicine, science and technology. And it means a life-saving vaccine is being snubbed, despite all the evidence of its efficacy.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Why is the EU running into so many difficulties with its Covid vaccine campaign? | Vaccines and immunisation