The vindication of AstraZeneca: A vaccine trashed by Macron, politicised by Europe but quietly saving lives across the world

Sitting in the Royal Box on Centre Court on the first day of Wimbledon this summer, Dame Sarah Gilbert appeared a little uncomfortable as tennis fans gave her a standing ovation.

Many of the crowd in SW18 that day had themselves received the AstraZeneca vaccine that Professor Gilbert and her team helped to develop. As they rose to their feet applauding, most knew her research at Oxford University in conjunction with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant had helped free the UK from the grip of the Covid lockdown.

While the audience recognised the achievements of her and her colleagues, some heads of state have found it politically expedient to be anything but complimentary about the first low-cost and not-for-profit vaccine.

As a result of what many claim was a European backlash fueled by resentment towards the UK over Brexit, the very public opposition to AstraZeneca could even cost many lives in some of the poorest countries where the vaccine is the only one available.

Some are even suggesting European leaders have “blood on their hands” for creating confusion and mixed messages, often about claims or rumours that turned out to be unfounded.

In January, just hours before the EU regulators approved AstraZeneca for all its adult citizens, President Emmanuel Macron strode to his podium at a specially convened press conference.

He branded the AstraZeneca vaccine as “quasi-ineffective for over-65s”, adding how it “doesn’t work the way we were expecting [it] to”.

It was exactly one year since the UK had left the European Union, and some leaders were struggling to hide their jealousy towards Britain’s national vaccine rollout.

How are different countries’ vaccine rollouts progressing?

As reporters looked on, Mr Macron could not resist a thinly veiled swipe at the British.

“The goal is not to have the biggest number of first injections,” he said, referring to the UK’s strategy of spacing out the first and second doses to try to maximise the number of people who have one jab and so some degree of immunity.

He added that it was a “lie” to tell people they were vaccinated if they had had a “first dose of a vaccine that is made up of two”.

That day, the European Commission imposed export controls following a row with AstraZeneca over its failure to meet its commitment to deliver doses once the jab was approved for use within the bloc. At the heart of that row were concerns that AstraZeneca was prioritising the UK over the EU.

Members states, it was decreed, could block exports of vaccines made within the union, including the Pfizer/BioNTech injection produced in Belgium. 

Germany had already held off administering AstraZeneca to seniors while awaiting proof of its efficacy, forcing it to rely on the more expensive Pfizer vaccine which was in short supply. 

Angela Merkel’s first jab in April of AstraZeneca was followed by the Moderna vaccine two months later. Although mixing doses could provide greater protection, it also raised the prospect that one was better than another.

AstraZeneca’s relationship with Europe became further strained after a series of blood clots were reported in those who had had the jab. 

Nearly a dozen countries, including Germany, France and Italy, temporarily suspended its use after a study suggested there was a tiny chance it led to blood clots. In some countries it was deemed more dangerous for youngsters. 

Despite Mr Macron’s claims about AstraZeneca being less effective among the elderly, in March the French authorities approved its use just for its elderly.

Sitting in a Parisian vaccine centre in April, Dr Milena Wehenkel expressed her frustration about mixed messaging after only 30 or 40 people turned up a day for the jab.

"In December, nobody wanted ‘genetically manipulated’ vaccines like Pfizer, and now it’s the other way round," she said, just as the European Medicines Agency insisted the benefits of protecting against the virus with either jab far outweighed the risks of getting the disease.

"Macron’s communication over AstraZeneca has been totally disastrous to the extent that I personally think there were political motives behind it, such as making Britain pay for Brexit or the delay in supplies."

She was one of a number of doctors who blamed “bad press” in France for undermining the country’s vaccine programme. 

That month as the daily death toll in France hit 300, Mr Macron’s warnings and about-turns were blamed for creating a “wave of panic” illustrated by the closure of a large vaccination centre in Nice after only 50 people enrolled to get the jab. 

AstraZeneca’s reputation was further dented as many European countries began giving away their shots to the developing world. 

By then, the damage was done for a drug meant to be easy to use because it did not require storage in special freezers.

One of the most harrowing scenes emerged when the Malawi health authorities incinerated more than 19,000 expired doses to try to bolster public confidence and reassure the public only safe vaccines would be used. 

South Africa had already rejected its Indian-made AstraZeneca, instead giving its doses to neighbouring countries.

Last month’s figures show just 60million vaccine doses had been administered to the 1.3billion living in African countries. 

In Australia a radio newsreader posted a video that went viral as he told how the AstraZeneca jab produced in Melbourne could see herd immunity achieved in just five weeks but people were waiting for Pfizer after being worried by the blood clotting claims. The graph below shows the risks of having the Astrazeneca vaccine compared with other potential hazards. 

Event likelihood – AstraZeneca vaccine risk comparison

Just last week, new research scotched damning claims AstraZeneca posed a blood clot risk. A team of researchers from Spain, the UK and the Netherlands compared data from more than 1.3million people and concluded that those who had the UK jab developed blood clots at the same rate as those who had the far more expensive Pfizer/BioNTech.

More importantly, they found people who had Covid-19 developed blood clots at a far higher rate than those who received neither vaccine. 

Many who created the vaccine would probably accept how in the race to beat Covid, AstraZeneca over-promised on deliveries and failed to adequately explain problems it was encountering with production to the European Union.

While a Chatham House report into how the vaccine became perceived as a second-class option identified the above failings, it also noted how “apparent politicisation” of the jabs led to “public distrust”.

On Thursday it was announced that one billion doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine had been sent to more than 170 countries around the world. 

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, toured the Oxford factory wearing a face mask bearing the Union Jack. He explained how such donations were a “moral” requirement, as well as in the best interest of Britain and the rest of the world.

Dame Sarah hailed it as a “milestone” having worked on the vaccine since January 2020 never knowing if it would even be needed.

On her desk at Oxford’s Jenner Institute is a mug bearing the words: “Keep Calm and Develop Vaccines.”

It is perhaps an indictment upon the international community that a vaccine that has proved pivotal in unlocking Britain has become embroiled in a political controversy, so much so that AstraZeneca has raised doubts now about its future in the vaccine business.

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