Frances vaccine hesitancy hangs over coronavirus response

NICE, France — As governments are putting their hopes on a vaccine to stop the coronavirus — and restart the economy — one country might face more difficulties than others.

France has one of the lowest vaccine confidence rates in the world, according to a Lancet study published earlier this month.

French people who are hesitant about vaccines shouldnt be dismissed as kooky conspiracy theorists who rant about Bill Gates and 5G all day, experts say — at least not all of them. But vaccine skeptics represent a sizable chunk of the French public, big enough to hinder a vaccination campaign when a vaccine against the coronavirus will be on the market.

Some high-profile politicians have made plain that they are among the skeptics.

“Im not taking it, not me, not my children and not people close to me anyway,” said Deputy Mayor of Marseille Samia Ghali on TV channel France 5 last Sunday. “I dont want to be a guinea pig to please some laboratories.”

According to an Ipsos poll, 41 percent of French adults would not get a coronavirus vaccine if it were available.

According to an Ipsos poll, 41 percent of French adults would not get a coronavirus vaccine if it were available. This makes France one of the most vaccine-skeptical countries out of the 27 polled by the research firm, with only Hungary (44 percent), Poland (45 percent) and Russia (47 percent) having less confidence in a future vaccine.

Such a high proportion of vaccine refuseniks would likely harm the countrys ability to achieve herd immunity. Herd immunity is the state when a sufficient percentage of a population is immune to a disease, through vaccination or prior infection, so that its spread is contained. Some people, for example with immunodeficiency diseases or those undergoing chemotherapy, are unable to receive a vaccine so high vaccination rates among healthy people are needed to protect them.

“We reckon that herd immunity could be attained with a vaccination coverage of 60 to 70 percent, but this is still a very rough guess,” said Daniel Floret, vice president of the vaccine technical committee at the French National Authority for Health (HAS).

Vaccine hesitancy in France has been reinforced by multiple public health controversies, both during the COVID-19 crisis and long before.

Michèle Rivasi, a MEP for the French Green party at the forefront of many battles around public health, is a familiar figure for somewhat moderate vaccine skeptics. She says she is not anti-vaccine herself but gave a platform in Brussels to controversial British scientist Andrew Wakefield — a darling of the anti-vax movement and author of the now-debunked 1998 study linking the measles vaccine to autism.

In April, she tweeted: “Vaccines against seasonal flu dont work at 100%. Far from it. How can we consider that a vaccine against the coronavirus, which is constantly mutating, can actually be efficient?” She deleted her tweet after being slammed by fellow Greens. “We need vaccines,” responded National Secretary Julien Bayou on Twitter, emphasizing the partys “massive support” vaccine research.

Conspiratorially minded anti-vaxers only represent “a few percent of the French population,” according to Patrick Peretti-Watel, a sociologist at INSERM who coordinates a research project on the French population during lockdown. But most skeptics fall under the umbrella of “vaccine hesitancy.”

“With vaccine hesitancy, we are dealing with people who are pondering over each vaccine. From a vaccine to another, it can go from 10 to 40 percent of the population,” said Peretti-Wattel, who co-authored a review of French vaccine hesitancy in 2016 and has followed its trends since then.

“As of now, I havent seen any research showing that radical conspiratorial movements are able to reach out to the broader public. Doubts are spreading when more mainstream players are involved,” said Jeremy Ward, a postdoctoral sociology researcher at Université Paris-Sorbonne. Those are environmental and health interest groups, as well as politicians. Their discourse “is more acceptable for the public and the media as well,” Ward said.

Experts agree that a turning point for French vaccine hesitancy was the 2009 H1N1 crisis, during which 94 million doses were ordered and only 6 were administered. “Today, when we ask people which vaccine they are opposed to, they mention H1N1,” said Peretti-Watel. An H1N1 vaccine called Pandemrix was found to cause rare cases of narcolepsy. The vaccination campaign itself was widely perceived as costly and overkill, amid suspicions of conflicts of interest between public health experts and the pharma industry.

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