Sanofi lab technician vaccine
A lab technician dedicated to the vaccines formulation, wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), prepares stainless steel tanks for manufacturing vaccines preparations before the syringe filling phase, at a French pharmaceutical company Sanofi's world distribution centre in Val-de-Reuil, France on July 10, 2020 . Pharma giants Sanofi and GSK said on July 29, 2020, that they have agreed to supply Britain with up to 60 million doses of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. Image Credit: AFP

Anti-vaccine bastion France warily eyes Covid shots

PARIS: France was once home to the father of immunisation, Louis Pasteur, but it is now among the most vaccine-sceptic nations on Earth — a pressing concern as it prepares one of the biggest vaccination campaigns in its history.

Britain's announcement on Wednesday that it was approving a Covid-19 vaccine for general use piled pressure on other countries to shield their citizens from a virus that has killed nearly 1.5 million people worldwide.

French President Emmanuel Macron had already said he was aiming to begin inoculating those most exposed to the virus in early 2021, followed by a second phase targeting the wider public between April and June. But he faces a tough task to persuade enough people to get the jabs to achieve herd immunity - the threshold at which the entire population is protected from the virus.

Risks 'exaggerated'

A survey in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper at the weekend showed only 41 percent of the French planned to get inoculated, compared with the 58 percent recorded in a recent Gallup poll in the US, where coronavirus and vaccine scepticism is also high.

Macron rejected a call from Greens leader Yannick Jadot to make the jab compulsory, saying he hoped to win over people with "conviction" and "transparency" instead. Richard Lamette, a 65-year-old Paris-based plumber, told AFP he had no plans to get the Covid shot "until it has been well tested on the population".

Remarking that several of his admittedly younger colleagues had contracted the virus but recovered within 10 days, he said he felt that the dangers had been "a bit exaggerated". "Other diseases kill far more people, like cancer and cigarettes and they don't make as much of a fuss about them," he argued.

'Yellow vest' influence

Long reputed as a nation of pill-poppers with one of the world's highest rates of use of antibiotics and antidepressants, the French have in recent years grown increasingly suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry.

The anticapitalist "yellow vest" protest movement that erupted in opposition to fuel taxes in late 2018 amplified conspiracy theories about the government being beholden to drug companies — theories that were fuelled by the increase in the number of compulsory jabs for children from three to 11 in 2018.

A Gallup survey of 140,000 people in 44 countries showed the French to be the most vaccine-sceptical in the world, with one in three saying they did not believe vaccines to be safe. The Journal du Dimanche poll showed the scepticism strongest among supporters of far-right and far-left political parties. Health experts say public trust in inoculations began to erode after a 1980s scandal when hundreds of haemophiliacs were infected with HIV after receiving tainted transfusions. Revelations in 2009 that a popular slimming drug Mediator caused serious heart damage and may have killed over 2,000 people further deepened the suspicion of drug companies.

Finland to vaccine its population for free against COVID-19

HELSINKI: Finland's government said on Thursday it had agreed a national strategy for COVID-19 vaccinations, planning to give them to everyone and to begin with vaccinating selected healthcare staff from January onwards. "Finland's goal is to protect the entire population by offering the vaccine free of charge to all those willing and who don't have a health obstacle," Minister of Social Affairs and Health Krista Kiuru told reporters on Thursday.

Swine flu fiasco

Many French people also frown on mass vaccination campaigns after a drive in 2009 against swine flu ended with the state incinerating millions of superfluous jabs, costing hundreds of millions of euros. For Jocelyn Raude, a professor at the EHESP School of Public Health in Rennes, the swine flu affair marked a shift in public opinion. A number of doctors and pharmacists led by surgeon Henri Joyeux, based in the southern city of Montpellier, began to beat the anti-vaccine drum.

Joyeux, who has 175,000 followers on Facebook, "gave the (anti-vaccine) movement credibility", Raude said. On his website the doctor likens the race for a Covid jab to the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. Geographer Lucie Guimier, who did her thesis on the anti-vaccine movement, noted it was strongest in Marseille, home of Didier Raoult, the professor who touted the anti-malaria drug chloroquine as a cure for coronavirus

South Africa fears virus comeback as cluster outbreaks flare

JOHANNESBURG: Localised coronavirus outbreaks in parts of South Africa have raised fears that the country could see a resurgence in cases compounded by gatherings during the upcoming festive season. Officials in Africa's hardest virus-hit country are scrambling to contain infections after a flare-up was reported in the impoverished Eastern Cape province and adjacent Western Cape province last month.

The national number of new daily cases crept over 3,000 last week, up 50 percent from an average of 2,000 earlier in November. More than half the increase is driven by infections in the Eastern Cape and around 25 percent by cases in the Western Cape.

"(The) small cluster outbreaks which we are seeing... are transient," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said during an emergency trip to the Eastern Cape last week. "Something has to be done," he stressed. South Africa's coronavirus transmission rate had slowed significantly after infections peaked in July, with less than three daily cases detected per 100,000 people between the end of August and the start of November.

Hospitals 'overwhelmed'

"We are not in a second wave, but in these two provinces... we are in the midst of a resurgence," said the government's chief Covid-19 advisor Salim Abdool Karim.

If the new outbreaks are not contained, he warned, it would be "just a matter of time" before the uptick hits the whole country. Hospitals in the Eastern Cape's largest city of Port Elizabeth are already struggling, although local government officials insist they are coping.

Doctors still reeling from the first wave have asked international medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to assist at three main public facilities.

"Hospitals indeed are overwhelmed with much higher numbers of patients... some say even higher than in July," said MSF doctor Colin Pfaff, project medical response coordinator in the province. "Facilities are struggling with lack of staff," he added, blaming "chronic deficiencies" and coronavirus infections among healthcare workers.

Private facilities are also feeling the pinch. "Our Eastern Cape hospitals are incredibly full at the moment," Richard Friedland, head of South Africa's leading private healthcare provider Netcare, told AFP. "More beds are being added, "so we still have capacity to treat cases," he added. While the provincial government insists hospitals are neither "full" nor "overflowing", the national doctors association this week accused the health ministry of failing to adequately support "overworked" staff.

In the Western Cape, authorities are pondering targeted restrictions. "We must first do everything possible, through our individual and collective action to ensure the resurge is rolled-back," Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said.

Vaccine prospects

Coronavirus has infected over 792,000 people in South Africa and killed more than 21,600 despite months of strict movement restrictions.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has ruled out a second lockdown for the time being.

The first nationwide shutdown earlier this year severely battered Africa's most industrialised economy, throwing at least 2.2 million out of work.

Nationally, pressure is on to rein in new infections before the end-of-year holidays, when millions of people criss-cross provinces to spend Christmas with family and friends.

Hopes are also set on a coronavirus vaccine after several recent significant breakthroughs.

"Evidence that an effective vaccine against coronavirus is possible... brings new hope," Ramaphosa said in a recent address.

South Africa is currently testing three vaccine candidates and experts hope to begin immunisation in mid-2021.

"Ideally we would like to vaccinate 70-80 percent of the population, but that is not going to happen anytime soon," said vaccinologist Shabir Madhi, who heads two of South Africa's trials, citing logistical and cultural challenges.

But even a target of around 30-40 percent of the adult population "would assist us greatly," he added.

South Africa is expecting to secure its first doses through the COVAX global Covid-19 vaccine distribution scheme.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has also set 500 million rand ($33 million) aside for immunisation and vowed to raise at least another 5 billion ($330 million).

South Africa-based Aspen Pharmacare has meanwhile signed an agreement with Johnson & Johnson to produce their vaccine candidate in-country.

Local bio-pharmaceutical company Biovac has also engaged international vaccine manufacturers over patent transfers.