LONDON: Britain's health minister defended the country's COVID-19 vaccine roll-out strategy on Wednesday (Feb 3), saying the science supported a decision to give the shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca to all age groups.
France, Belgium and Germany are among European Union countries to recommend that Oxford's vaccine be given only to under 65s, and French President Emmanuel Macron was quoted on Friday as saying the shot appeared "quasi-ineffective" among those over 65.
That is strongly disputed by the vaccine's developers and the British government.
"My view is that we should listen to the scientists," health minister Matt Hancock told BBC Radio when asked about Macron's comment.
He said "the science on this one was already pretty clear" and that a study published overnight made it "absolutely crystal clear that the Oxford vaccine not only works but works well".
The study showed the Oxford vaccine had 76 per cent efficacy after a first shot in the three months until a second shot was given, and higher efficacy if the second dose was given at least 12 weeks after the first, supporting Britain's decision to extend the gap between doses.
The study did not give additional direct evidence of efficacy in older people.
Oxford Vaccine Group chief Andrew Pollard said he did not understand what Macron's statement meant.
"The point is that we have rather less data in older adults, which is why people have less certainty about the level of protection," Pollard told BBC radio.
"But we have good immune responses in older adults very similar to younger adults, the protection that we do see is in exactly the same direction, and of a similar magnitude."
Britain is ahead of France and other EU countries in the pace of its roll-out, having approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot earlier and made the change to dosing guidelines to give some protection to more people in a quicker time frame.
French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune defended the comparatively slower pace of vaccines roll-out in the EU, saying Britain had taken "enormous risks", including in using the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot on older people.
"You see, the United Kingdom has taken fewer precautions than ourselves," Beaune told LCI TV.
In a further blow to the British partners, Switzerland withheld approval for the vaccine, demanding more efficacy and quality data before giving it the green light.
TRANSMISSION AND VARIANTS
Oxford said on Tuesday the data in the study, which has not been peer-reviewed, also seemed to suggest the vaccine reduced transmission of infections, with a 67 per cent reduction in positive swabs among those vaccinated in the British arm of the trial.
This fell to 50 per cent among those who received a second dose.
Though it is too early to draw a definitive conclusion, the study is the first to suggest a vaccine may help stop the spread of COVID-19, not just prevent people getting ill.
Oxford's Pollard told a media briefing more work was needed to understand the effect of dosing intervals on the analysis, but it was a "very substantial reduction."
"Even a 50 per cent reduction in transmission has a potential to have a very significant impact on transmission," AstraZeneca's research chief, Mene Pangalos, told the briefing.
Scientists welcomed the news, but also said more data was needed before it could be hailed as a breakthrough.
"It's important to note the limitations of this study - there is limited length of follow-up after the second dose so we likely do not have robust data on the impact of the second dose on PCR positivity," said Helen Fletcher, Professor of Immunology London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
How long vaccines last, whether they stop transmission and if they work against the more infectious variants that have emerged recently are among questions drugmakers are trying to answer.
So far, other vaccine developers have said further research is still needed on transmissibility. In December, Germany's BioNTech said it would take three to six months more study.
Pollard said it was too early to consider easing social distancing rules and other measures aimed at curbing infection rates.
The British partners hope to have a next generation of COVID-19 vaccines that will protect against variants before the Northern Hemisphere winter.