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Syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine await distribution in a nursing home in Rennes, France, on Jan. 5, 2021.

DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for a speedier vaccine rollout after a disastrous start that has left France at the bottom of the Western world’s distribution rankings, triggering harsh criticism from politicians and citizens.

Using the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the first to be approved by Western regulators, France began its immunization campaign on Dec. 27 and inoculated just 507 people by Jan. 3, a statistically insignificant number in a population of 67 million.

Facing intense criticism and a re-election campaign next year, Mr. Macron compared the vaccination effort to a “family stroll” and vowed to catch up with Germany and other European countries that are well ahead in delivering the injections.

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While no European country except Britain has administered doses to more than 1 per cent of its citizens, the French tally is embarrassingly low for a health care system that is admired around the world for its high standards and universal coverage – and for the pioneering vaccine research that began in the 19th century under microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur.

According to Bloomberg’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, Germany had administered 266,000 doses by Jan. 4; Italy, 129,000. Britain has vaccinated 1.3 million people, about 1.9 per cent of its population, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a news conference Tuesday.

Globally, Israel was on top, with more than 1.2 million jabs by Monday – almost 14 per cent of its population. On Monday, it became the first country outside North America to authorize the use of the Moderna mRNA vaccine and is accelerating its vaccine rollout in the hope of emerging from the pandemic early (the European Union is set to approve the Moderna vaccine in the next few days).

France’s exceedingly slow vaccine rollout is seen by many in the country as another example of pandemic-response clumsiness and inefficiency after the government’s failures in the early stages of the pandemic to ensure an adequate supply of masks and implement a robust test-and-trace system. By the start of the week, France had recorded more than 2.6 million COVID-19 infections and 65,415 deaths, both the third-highest in the EU.

National and regional politicians and the media have delivered harsh criticism of the vaccination disaster. “What we have seen is a state scandal,” Jean Rottner, the doctor who is president of the Grand Est regional council, told France 2 TV Monday. “Things need to accelerate. Getting vaccinated is becoming more complicated than buying a car. The French need clarity and a firm message from a government that knows where it is going.”

The influential Le Monde newspaper asked: “Is France getting the dunce’s cap in Europe for vaccinations?” And theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine delivered an open letter to the government, signed by more than 100 academics and cultural figures, that accused it of hiding behind the huge number of French who oppose vaccines. The letter urged the swift delivery of doses to those who want the jabs.

France’s go-slow approach cannot be blamed on supply constraints or logistical problems such as the fact that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires extremely cold refrigeration. In good part it seems planned that way, though there were year-end shortages of doctors and nurses.

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Wary of French skepticism about vaccines, France implemented a highly complicated and bureaucratic system that required a consultation based on a 45-page “vaccination protocol,” followed by a five-day waiting period for people in nursing and retirement homes, where the inoculations started. (The waiting period has been dropped.)

Only doctors can administer the vaccines, and health authorities have so far ruled out opening mass-vaccination centres in arenas. Alain Fischer, the doctor who is overseeing the French inoculation program, defended the go-slow strategy, saying in a radio interview last week that it “gives time to do things right in terms of safety, efficiency, organization and ethics, with regards to consent.”

France faces an uphill battle even if the pace of vaccinations increases. Polls have shown that only 40 per cent of French people say they want a vaccine, compared with 77 per cent of Britons. Johns Hopkins University says 50 per cent to 90 per cent of the population needs immunity to achieve herd immunity – at which point person-to-person spread of a disease becomes unlikely.

The main reason cited by respondents for their aversion to vaccines is fear of side effects. Critics of France’s vaccine rollout say the government failed to launch an effective communications campaign to try to win over people who fear inoculation.

But “distrust of vaccines is just another variant of the general distrust of the state,” said Charles Kehoe, a Paris entrepreneur who is not opposed to vaccination.

The EU has signed contracts with six vaccine suppliers and is trying to boost its supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The contracts will eventually provide two billion doses, the European Commission has said, though production constraints could delay large-scale deliveries until April.

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