France will now vaccinate people aged 65 years and older with the COVID-19 vaccine jointly developed by Oxford University and British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca.
The decision was announced Tuesday by Health Minister Olivier Veran during a televised interview. Veran said anyone older than the age of 50 with pre-existing conditions can receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, “including those between 65 and 74."
France was among many European nations that refused to approve the Oxford-AstraZeneca for its elderly citizens. The developers did not enroll many people in those age groups for their large-scale clinical trials, leading to a lack of data about its potential efficacy. French President Emmanuel Macron even went so far as describing the vaccine as “quasi-ineffective.”
But health officials say further data from clinical trials has proved its efficacy among older people. The reversal is sure to jumpstart France’s slow vaccination campaign, which has been hampered by a shortage of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
France’s change of heart coincides with a real-world study conducted in Britain that found the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford University-AstraZeneca are highly effective in protecting elderly people from the disease after receiving just one shot.
Researchers at Public Health England say the respective two-dose vaccines are more than 80% effective at preventing people in their 80s from being hospitalized around three to four weeks after the first shot is administered.
The study also found that the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was between 57% and 61% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections among people at least 70 years old, while the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was between 60% and 73% effective.
The study, posted online Monday, has not undergone the customary peer-review process. Britain was the first European country to approve the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for all of its citizens regardless of age.
US sticks to two-dose regimen
In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Washington Post Tuesday the United States will stick with the two-dose regimen of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines.
A growing number of public health experts have urged government health officials to use millions of doses intended to be used as second shots instead be used as first doses, as millions of adult Americans have not been inoculated due to an acute shortage of vaccines.
But Dr. Fauci warned that switching to a single-dose strategy could leave people less protected and enable the growing number of variants to spread.
The nation’s leading infectious-disease expert tells the Post that “the gap between supply and demand is going to be diminished and then overcome” very soon as both Pfizer and Moderna fulfill their commitment to provide 220 million total doses by the end of March, along with Johnson & Johnson’s pledge to deliver 20 million doses of its one-shot COVID-19 vaccine this month.
New cases on the rise
The World Health Organization said new coronavirus cases increased globally for the first time in seven weeks, and officials expressed concern that cases could again rise significantly.
"We need to have a stern warning for all of us that this virus will rebound if we let it," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for COVID-19, said Monday at a news briefing at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the rise in cases occurred in four regions: the Americas, the eastern Mediterranean, Europe and Southeast Asia. He said the development was "disappointing but not surprising" and said part of the spike appeared to be the result of the “relaxing of public health measures.”
Michael Ryan, director of WHO's emergencies program, said, “Right now, the virus is very much in control” and said it was “unrealistic” to think the pandemic might be stopped by the end of the year.
The warnings come after a sharp fall of coronavirus cases and deaths in many parts of the world, which along with vaccine developments, had led to hopes that the spread of the coronavirus would continue on a downward trend.
In the United States, health officials are warning that another surge in cases could be on the horizon, as newer and more infectious variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are growing more frequently.
The new upward trend in cases comes as most states are easing coronavirus restrictions.