A leading scientist who helped develop the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine has accused Emmanuel Macron of trying to reduce demand for it by claiming it is “quasi-ineffective” for the over 65s.
Sir John Bell, a professor who is part of the Oxford University vaccine team, accused the French president Emmanuel Macron of “demand management” to compensate for his country not having adequate supplies of the Covid-19 drug.
The professor of medicine said on Saturday: “I suspect this is a bit of demand management from Mr Macron,” adding: “Well, if he didn’t have any vaccine the best thing you could do is reduce demand.”
Sir John rejected President Macron’s description of the drug as “quasi-ineffective”, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m not sure where he got that from.”
He acknowledged its original study only had small numbers of elderly people, with many shielding themselves from the pandemic, but added: “The numbers still pointed toward a very highly effective vaccine but the numbers were small, in fairness, we always accepted that.”
Sir John added that other studies proved “elderly people responded just as well in other age groups” and that “there’s really persuasive evidence that this is a protective vaccine in those populations”.
Sir John, the regius chair of medicine at the University of Oxford who led the vaccine trials and is a member of the UK vaccine task force, earlier said Mr Macron’s comments were “very unfair and also untrue”.
“This statement suggests he has not looked at the clinical or immunogenicity data which shows it is excellent in the over-65s,” he said. “There is ample evidence of strong antibody responses in this age group and you can be certain they will respond to the vaccine. Perhaps he is trying to reduce demand for the vaccine for some reason.”
The professor’s intervention came as President Macron was accused of risking undermining public confidence in the UK’s vaccine programme by making “untrue” claims about the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.
Senior Conservative MPs and scientists accused the French president of failing to understand the science after he claimed the vaccine “doesn’t work as expected” and appeared to be “quasi-ineffective” in the over-65s.
Mr Macron also criticised the UK’s decision to give doses 12 weeks apart, claiming this could “accelerate the mutations” of the virus. He was speaking hours before the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use, stating that it could be used “in older adults”.
It was the latest salvo in the dispute between Brussels and the UK over vaccines, which saw the EU row back on Friday night over moves to block jabs from crossing from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland.
Speaking in Paris on Friday afternoon, Mr Macron said of the AstraZeneca jab: “We’re waiting for the EMA [European Medicines Agency] results, but today everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.
“What I can tell you officially today is that the early results we have are not encouraging for 60 to 65-year-old people concerning AstraZeneca.”
Greg Clark, the chairman of the Commons science committee, said: “It seems that President Macron has made an error. It is nonsense.”