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France's Vaccine-Skepticism Is Making Its Covid Immunization Drive Much Harder  

ALAIN JOCARD | AFP | Getty Images
  • France is known to be one of the most vaccine-skeptic nations in the world.
  • That makes its Covid-19 immunization drive much harder.
  • France wants to immunize 1 million people by the end of January but at the current vaccination rate, it will reach that target in late February.

France is thought to be one of the most vaccine-skeptical nations in the world, with public distrust of immunization programs borne out in opinion polls even prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, cynicism in France toward inoculation efforts appears to persist, despite Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out across the U.S., U.K. and European Union.

An Ipsos survey conducted in conjunction with the World Economic Forum between Dec. 17-20 (and so after the first Covid-19 vaccinations had been given in the U.S. and U.K. but not yet in the EU), found the lowest levels of vaccination intent in France.

The survey — of 13,500 people in 15 countries — found that only 40% of adults asked in France intended to get the vaccine. The highest intention was found in China, where the coronavirus pandemic first emerged in December 2019, with 80% of people agreeing they would get a vaccine if it were available. For comparison, 77% of those asked in the U.K. said they would have the shot, and 69% of those in the U.S. said they intended to get the vaccine.

Slow start

France's coronavirus vaccination program has gotten off to a slow start, and the country is seeking to ramp it up amid pressure from rising coronavirus infections and the threat of several new mutations that make it more transmissible.

France has only vaccinated almost 190,000 people as of Tuesday, according to the latest official data, several weeks into its immunization drive which began on December 27, along with the rest of the EU.

France's goal is to vaccinate 1 million people by the end of January, with priority given to the elderly and health care workers, but at the current rate this target won't be reached until Feb. 24, according to France's CovidTracker.

By comparison, the U.K. has already vaccinated over 2.4 million people, as of Jan. 11, with the first dose of the vaccine (the vaccines currently being deployed require two doses) and is inoculating 200,000 people a day, its health minister said Sunday. It aims to vaccinate 13 million people in its priority groups by mid-February.

France's slow start has been blamed on bureaucracy and nuances in the country's vaccination procedure (it's the only European country where written consent is required before a vaccination can be given), and there is pressure to speed up the process. French President Emmanuel Macron is reportedly unhappy at the sluggishness of the rollout, and both the press and public health experts have been scathing, with one epidemiologist quoted by France 24 as labeling it a "fiasco."

What lies behind vaccine hesitancy?

The widespread public distrust of vaccines in France has been attributed to factors including misgivings about government, previous public health scandals and demographics such as age and sex.

Antoine Bristielle, an associate professor of social sciences and political science researcher at the PACTE laboratory at Sciences Po Grenoble, has written extensively on the issue.

Having collected and studied data on vaccine sentiment, Bristielle found that older people tended to trust vaccines more than younger people in France, and women were more likely to be hesitant about vaccines than men, and had a greater fear of possible side effects.

He added that people politically aligned to the far-left and far-right were also more likely to express anti-vaccine sentiment and distrust in government.

"In addition to these socio-political characteristics, two other factors largely explain the (lower level of) acceptance of a vaccine against Covid-19 within the French population: confidence in political institutions and confidence in scientists," Bristielle said in an article on the subject for think-tank Foundation Jaun-Jaures.

Disinformation on social media networks, as well as coverage of conspiracy theories in the mainstream media, have also contributed to public distrust, he added.

In addition, past public health scandals, such as a 1990s blood transfusion scandal, as well as a troubled vaccine rollout a decade ago to counter the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, have "durably damaged the relationship between the French and vaccines," Bristielle noted.

Vaccine safety

There are also some other factors affecting public trust in coronavirus vaccines, including the speed with which they have been created: less than a year. Regulators are keen to stress that the vaccines have all undergone full clinical trial processes, with no corners cut, and have been proven to be safe and effective.

Analysis from late-stage clinical trials showed that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were both around 95% effective at preventing severe Covid-19 infection in trial participants. The University of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has an average efficacy rate of 70%. None of the vaccines produced serious side effects in trial participants.

At present, it is not known how long the vaccines offer protection against the coronavirus, or whether they prevent onward transmission of the virus, hence some public health measures, such as mask wearing, could continue.

A woman wearing a protective mask rides her bicycle next to the Eiffel Tower on April 23, 2020 in Paris, France.
Chesnot | Getty Images
A woman wearing a protective mask rides her bicycle next to the Eiffel Tower on April 23, 2020 in Paris, France.

French yoga teacher Amel Lamloum told CNBC she doesn't see the advantages of having a Covid vaccine. At 30 years old, and with no underlying health issues, statistically, she is not considered at high risk from the virus.

"I don't see why I would take the vaccine when it has been done in only ten months … and we don't know the long-term effects, " Lamloum told CNBC Tuesday. "They say that after taking the vaccine we would still have to wear a mask so it's like we take the vaccine for nothing."

Another concern for Lamloum is that the vaccine could become compulsory, or that she could feel forced to have it if there were restrictions on those who had not been vaccinated. "It's going to be very hard to move if there is a vaccine passport," Lamloum said.

How to improve vaccine trust?

France, which has insisted that Covid vaccines will not be compulsory, now has the task of persuading the public to trust in immunization.

Engaging the public through members of society that tend to be trusted — such as family doctors within the community — is one way of getting the public on side when it comes to vaccinations.

"It's important we don't only communicate through politicians and senior civil servants in our ministries of health, we need other partnerships with lots of different organizations in civil society, through businesses, community organizations," Flemming Konradsen, professor of international environmental health at the University of Copenhagen, told CNBC.

"Not all people trust their prime minister or civil servants, they need to get this message from friends or their boss at work … it has to be a very broad remit of communication," he added.

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