Empty halls, cancelled shots: France's COVID vaccine rollout falters

Pascal ROSSIGNOL
·3-min read
Empty halls and cancelled appointment: supply crunch slows France's vaccine rollout

By Pascal ROSSIGNOL

RIBECOURT-LA-TOUR, France (Reuters) - Renaud Georges was days from receiving his first coronavirus vaccine shot, an injection he hoped would allow him to hug his grandchildren for the first time in months. Then he received a text message informing him the appointment was cancelled.

"It's a massive disappointment," he said. "For us the vaccine is the only way out of this miserable crisis."

The retired school teacher said because of a shortage of vaccine doses, the next available slot was March 10. His wife Annie, who two months shy of her 75th birthday and in good health is not seen as a priority, does not know when she will get inoculated.

"We miss not being able to embrace our children, to hold them in our arms. That's everything to us," Georges said.

Europe faces a vaccine shortfall because Pfizer and Moderna have temporarily slowed supplies, while AstraZeneca said it would reduce volumes allocated to the European Union in the first quarter due to production issues.

The shortages have led the northern Hauts-de-France region where the Georges live, the greater Paris area and at least one other region, which combined account for a third of France's population, to postpone giving out first doses.

General practitioner Anthony Haro said he was forced to close temporarily the vaccine centre in nearby Saint-Amand-les-Eaux that had been running for nine days after the local hospital supplying the vaccine said its stocks were exhausted.

"We had made promises to our patients, and those promises brought comfort," he said. "We have very fragile patients right now, like those on chemotherapy, who we cannot vaccinate because doses are reserved for second-round inoculations."

"NO REGRETS"

France had no regrets about Europe's process for procuring vaccines, said European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune.

"The idea that France or Germany might get the vaccine but not its neighbour makes no sense," the minister said.

Local officials blame the government for a chaotic vaccine deployment. They say it panicked after the campaign got off to a slow start and made the vaccine available to too many too quickly.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said there had been no cancellations, merely postponed appointments, and blamed lower-than-expected supplies from pharmaceutical firms. He also said the increased number of vaccination centres had resulted in there being more appointments than doses in some places.

In mid-January, the mayor of Paris' 17th arrondissement, Geoffroy Boulard, scrambled to find doctors, nurses and administrative staff to run a third vaccination centre in his district that could deliver at least 1,200 COVID shots per day.

Three days before the centre was to open, city authorities informed Boulard there were not enough doses of the Pfizer vaccine. "It feels like we're being taken for idiots," he said.

Vaccine procurement had been too opaque and the consequences were being felt across France. President Emmanuel Macron's government had not heeded past lessons, he said.

"Forward planning is not a French quality. We saw it with masks, test kits and we see it again with vaccine doses," he complained. "What was plan B?"

(Reporting by Pascal Rossignol in Ribecourt-la-Tour and Caroline Pailliez in Paris; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Janet Lawrence)