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Since 78-year-old nursing home resident Mauricette received the first Covid vaccination in France on December 27, the French have given the new Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine a cool reception. President Emile Macron declared, “Let’s have trust in our researchers and doctors. We are the nation of the Enlightenment and of Pasteur. Reason and science should guide us.” So far though, few seem to be heeding Macron’s words. Vaccinations for SARS-CoV-2 are proceeding at a painfully slow pace in many nations, but progress in France—which has lost more citizens to Covid-19 than almost any other EU country—has been moving at a (pre-climate-change) glacial pace.

One key issue is surely the logistics of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. In France, nursing home residents were designated to be the first to receive shots, but most care home facilities lack the special freezers needed to store the vaccine at -70 degrees Centigrade. Another factor, one that affects most countries, is that politicians have been setting overly optimistic, pie-in-the-sky targets. For the French, though, the steepest barrier is an anti-vaxx climate that permeates the country. Repeated polls in the fall indicated that over 50% of of the French did not intend to get a shot when vaccines became available (compared to about 36% in US polls). In practice, the numbers are even more dismaying. During the first week of the national rollout—which placed care home residents at the top tier—fewer than 600 people received Covid jabs. (Some 400 French are dying every day of Covid complications). As a Bloomberg columnist put it, “At this rate, it would take France about 400 years to vaccinate its people.” France is a bastion of vaccine hesitancy—to such an extent that even many healthcare providers regard vaccines as suspect.

The stalled Covid vaccination campaign is the latest episode in the history of French vaccine misadventures. Officials are retooling plans in the hope of fending off a repeat of the disastrous 2009 H1N1 effort—in which only 8% of the population received shots and millions of vaccine doses were wasted.

This dubious attitude toward scientifically tested life-saving medicines in the home of Louis Pasteur may seem strange, but it does not arise from a mistrust of science so much as a mistrust of institutions, especially government. As vaccination campaigns tend to be government-run, politics, as in the US, can be a deciding factor. Social media falsehoods about the new vaccines run rampant, and both the far-right and far-left mingle vaccine hesitancy with a deep suspicion of the Macron administration. “Part of the population may reject the jabs just because they don’t see them as an anti-Covid vaccine, but as a pro-Macron one,” science historian and vaccine hesitancy researcher Laurent-Henri Vignaud told Wired UK. Mistrust is further fueled by mishandling of mask guidelines to a degree that makes the US fumbles seem quite venial.

Others point out that the birthplace of the Enlightenment is also an unusually skeptical nation. Patients are required to consult with a doctor five days before getting a shot, all patients must officially give consent, and nursing home residents (the first group to receive vaccinations in France) are given time for “reflection” in case they change their minds about getting a jab. The required medical consultations and other restrictions, such as requiring vaccinations to be given by a doctor or by a nurse under direct doctor supervision, have already been relaxed in an attempt to expedite the process.

What now? The country is engaged in a mad dash to jump-start the campaign. One positive step is that nursing home staff over age 50 were moved up the line to be vaccinated along with care home residents, along with healthcare providers. Progress among HCPs should speed things, as many hospitals have freezers capable of storing the Pfizer-BioNTech formula, and the arrival of the Moderna vaccine (which can be stored in a regular freezer) will ease the logistics of vaccinating France’s large elderly population. Also, it should be kept in mind that most countries have had deeply disappointing vaccine rollouts. As more types of vaccines become available, and as nations start to correct the hyper-inflated targets set by elected officials, the process should pick up speed, but it is probably too early to indulge in speculation about when communities will see a return to “normalcy.”

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Koren Thomas
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