An Ipsos poll conducted in December involving 15 countries found that France ranked at the bottom in terms of willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In the poll, only 40 percent of the French population said that they wanted the shot. Polls also show that more than three-quarters of nursing home workers – among the government’s first target groups to be vaccinated – don’t want to take it.
“I have a brain. I’m capable of forming my own ideas,” said Anna Courreges, a nurse who works at a care home in the southern French town of Beziers. “There is some mistrust of the authorities on my part, when you see how the crisis has been managed in France from the start.”
Immunization in France off to a slow start
France’s mass vaccination campaign is off to a slow start. Only 422,000 people have received the vaccine in the more than three weeks since European regulators authorized vaccine use, far behind other developed nations.
One of the main reasons for this is that French officials are running up against deeply ingrained opposition that has made the French some of the world’s top vaccine skeptics. This is something that has roots in the 19th century, when anti-vaccination groups campaigned against the modern vaccination techniques pioneered by Louis Pasteur.
This sentiment has been fueled even more in recent years by widespread distrust of the government run by President Emmanuel Macron. Macron has faced years of protest from the antiestablishment yellow-vest movement.
Part of the reason why the French people are not keen on getting vaccinated is the newness of the technology behind COVID-19 vaccines. The vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna rely on so-called messenger RNA (mRNA), which are molecules that carry instructions on how to make proteins. The mRNA used in the new vaccines are derived from the coronavirus itself. While this technology has been studied for years in clinical trials, it has never been used in mass vaccination.
Some of the leading voices of skepticism toward mRNA vaccines are nursing home workers, many of whom feel that the mRNA technology hasn’t been adequately tested or proven to be effective. Their fears are further compounded by reports of deaths linked to Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines that have surfaced in other European nations. (Related: At least 23 people have died from coronavirus vaccines in Norway (so far).)
Scandals have fueled distrust
Previous medical scandals in the country may have also deepened the French people’s distrust of vaccines, according to Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Larson points to the government’s “management” of different health scandals in the past, which has either confused or disappointed the public at different points.
“After large health scandals, there is a decline in confidence in vaccines,” said Lucie Guimier, a geopolitical expert specializing in public health at the University of Paris’ Institute of Geopolitics.
One example of these scandals is the infected blood scandal that happened in the 1990s. According to reports, more than 1,000 hemophiliacs in France had received HIV-infected blood. This discovery led to four French ministers going to trial and three being convicted. Another controversy involved a possible link between the hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis. A media storm forced the French government to halt its vaccination campaign in 1998.
“Politically, the crisis was managed very badly,” said Guimier, who noted that the abrupt end to the campaign made the vaccine seem “dangerous” to the public despite authorities finding no link between it and multiple sclerosis.
But the scandal that had the largest impact on vaccine confidence happened in 2009, when the government purchased an oversupply of H1N1 vaccines. While the country ordered 94 million doses of the vaccine, less than six million were vaccinated.
According to Larson, this event led to public sentiment that the government was “in bed with big business.” Larson has previously told Euronews that the government’s reliance on big businesses was the weak point in the vaccine “trust chain.”
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