The French government on Thursday unveiled its Covid-19 vaccination strategy, vowing transparency as it sought to placate fears and growing levels of scepticism in France over the safety and efficacy of the new vaccines.
The French government will begin its vaccine rollout in January, with nursing homes first in line before the programme is extended in February to the vulnerable elderly and those with underlying health conditions. By spring, the vaccine is expected to be available to the rest of the population. Vaccination will be free of charge for everyone but it will not be mandatory.
The French will have access to both the Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna vaccines, available at the earliest towards the end of December, if not from January, after regulatory approval from the European and French health authorities.
But one of the government’s biggest hurdles will be overcoming the high level of distrust of vaccines in France – one of the highest in Europe – which could hinder efforts to combat the coronavirus and potentially delay a return to “normal” life.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex stressed the need for clarity when he outlined France’s vaccination plan. "I am committed to full transparency and information-sharing on the decisions we will take," he said.
Health Minister Olivier Véran also raised the issue of vaccine scepticism.
"Before we immunise ourselves against the coronavirus, we must first immunise ourselves against the fears," he said, alluding to the challenge ahead for health officials.
Several recent polls show that the French are reluctant to be vaccinated. "Only half of the respondents (53%) answered that they definitely or probably wanted to be vaccinated against Covid-19" in November, according to a survey of 2,000 people released on Friday by the French Public Health Agency. The figure is much lower than in July when 64% agreed to be vaccinated, according to a poll by the agency.
France ranks among the countries most hesitant in Europe to take the new Covid-19 vaccines, behind only Hungary (56%), Poland (56%) and Russia (54%), according to a World Economic Forum poll published in September by Ipsos. On the other hand, countries with a projected strong uptake of the vaccine were China (97%), Brazil (88%), Australia (88%) and India (87%).
Macron’s new ‘vaccine man’
The widespread mistrust of vaccines in France may possibly stem from a previous vaccination campaign that was marred by misinformation.
"In France, the population still remembers what happened under the Hepatitis B vaccination programme. In the 1990s, it was wrongly suspected of triggering several types of multiple sclerosis," explained Dr Caroline de Pauw, a sociologist at the Lille Centre for Sociological and Economic Studies and Research.
"Some people are still very fearful that if they get vaccinated, they will fall ill from the vaccine.”
These fears have seemingly re-emerged with the Covid-19 pandemic, even though none of the vaccines have yet shown serious adverse effects.
"Some people who are not vulnerable wonder if they will put themselves at greater risk with a vaccine – whose side-effects are still unknown – than if they catch the virus," the sociologist explained.
To counter the apprehension, the government will have to advocate convincingly for vaccination, being careful to avoid the obfuscation and contradictory statements it delivered earlier this year on masks and testing.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the government will rely on "a scientific committee responsible for monitoring vaccination" and on "a collective of citizens to engage the population more widely”.
Macron has chosen Alain Fischer as his point man to coordinate the nation’s vaccination strategy. An immunologist and biology professor, Fischer said he wanted to work with "health professionals who are themselves convinced by transparent and open communication on the risk-benefit analysis of these vaccines; civic groups, such as associations representing those with chronic diseases; and researchers and specialists in ‘vaccine hesitancy’ (a reluctance to be vaccinated) who are likely to make suggestions on the best way to communicate".
According to de Pauw, one of the government’s priorities will be to provide a strong education campaign that explains both the benefits and disadvantages of being vaccinated.
The sociologist argues that anti-vaxxers do not refuse "vaccination on principle but because they indirectly fear for their health".
"We really need to take the time to explain to the population how these different vaccines work, while answering all questions, even the most simple ones.”
"Reassuring the French"
The government "must reassure the French people", de Paux stressed, by focusing on vaccine safety. In addition to driving home this positive message, the French government must also "reinforce its messaging on the benefits of collective or widespread vaccination".
However, some of the grey areas around the vaccines are likely to undermine the government’s messaging.
Fischer on Thursday pointed out that it was not yet known whether the vaccines "protect the vaccinated individual against infection" or "against transmission".
"We only have press releases from the companies behind the vaccines. As a scientist I am looking forward to seeing articles published in scientific journals," he said.
Given there are unanswered questions concerning the Covid-19 vaccines – even among scientists themselves – it’s not surprising that the French have responded to the vaccination rollout with uncertainty.
"In any vaccination period, there is always a segment of the population that decides not to get vaccinated. If it's 5% of the French, that's not worrying. But if it's 50% or 60%, then you have to ask yourself questions," de Pauw said.
This article has been translated from the original in French.