Italy approves AstraZeneca vaccine for adults up to 65

Italian health authorities have raised their age limit for AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine by an extra ten years, approving it for use on people up to 65.

Italy approves AstraZeneca vaccine for adults up to 65
A dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine being prepared in Rome. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Previously the vaccine, developed at the University of Oxford in the UK, was only indicated in Italy for adults aged 55 or under.

But the Italian health ministry published a circular on Tuesday that says the vaccine can be used on everyone between 18 and 65, with the exception of “extremely vulnerable” people.

READ ALSO: Where to register for a Covid-19 vaccine in your region of Italy

The change is due to “new scientific evidence that gives higher estimates of the vaccine's efficacy than those previously reported”, the note said, along with more data about the immune response it produces in people over 55, and guidance from the World Health Organisation that the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe for older adults.

Italy's medicines agency AIFA, as well as the government's panel of scientific advisors, have already signed off on the move. 

AIFA had previously recommended reserving the vaccine for younger adults until more studies had been done on the effects on over-55s. Regulators in Italy and other EU countries have been cautious over the AstraZeneca vaccine on the grounds that the first clinical trials were carried out mainly on younger adults with fewer older participants.

That position had significant consequences for Italy's vaccination schedule, since doses of AstraZeneca began arriving this month but could not be used on over-80s, who are the top priority after health workers. 

READ ALSO: Who is in Italy's Covid-19 vaccine priority groups?

The Health Ministry therefore advised using the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines on people over 80 or with severe medical conditions, while offering AstraZeneca jabs sooner than expected to under-55s working in key sectors like schools or the police service.

Now key workers up to the age of 65 will also be eligible for the shot and, with most regional health services vaccinating in age order, they can expect to get it ahead of their younger colleagues. 

People born before 1956, or those with a serious health condition, will continue to be offered the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, while others born later – including people with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19 but not “extremely vulnerable” – will receive the AstraZeneca version, depending on availability. 

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Italy’s deputy health minister under fire after casting doubt on Covid vaccines

Opposition leaders called for health undersecretary Marcello Gemmato to resign on Tuesday after the official said he was not "for or against" vaccines.

Italy's deputy health minister under fire after casting doubt on Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a pharmacist and member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, made the remark during an appearance on the political talkshow ReStart on Rai 2 on Monday evening.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

In a widely-shared clip, the official criticises the previous government’s approach to the Covid pandemic, claiming that for a large part of the crisis Italy had the highest death rate and third highest ‘lethality’ rate (the proportion of Covid patients who died of the disease).

When journalist Aldo Cazzullo interjects to ask whether the toll would have been higher without vaccines, Gemmato responds: “that’s what you say,” and claimed: “We do not have the reverse burden of proof.”

The undersecretary goes on to say that he won’t “fall into the trap of taking a side for or against vaccines”.

After Gemmato’s comments, the president of Italy’s National Federation of Medical Guilds, Filippo Anelli, stressed that official figures showed the Italian vaccination campaign had already prevented some 150,000 deaths, slashing the country’s potential death toll by almost half.

Vaccines also prevented eight million cases of Covid-19, over 500,000 hospitalisations, and more than 55,000 admissions to intensive care, according to a report from Italy’s national health institute (ISS) in April 2021.

Gemmato’s comments provoked calls for him to step down, including from the head of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.

“A health undersecretary who doesn’t take his distance from no-vaxxers is certainly in the wrong job” wrote the leader of the centrist party Action, Carlo Calenda, on Twitter.

Infectious disease expert Matteo Bassetti of Genoa’s San Martino clinic also expressed shock.

“How is it possible to say that there is no scientific proof that vaccines have helped save the lives of millions of people? You just have to read the scientific literature,” Bassetti tweeted. 

In response to the backlash, Gemmato on Tuesday put out a statement saying he believes “vaccines are precious weapons against Covid” and claiming that his words were taken out of context and misused against him.

The Brothers of Italy party was harshly critical of the previous government’s approach to handling the Covid crisis, accusing the former government of using the pandemic as an excuse to “limit freedom” through its use of the ‘green pass’, a proof of vaccination required to access public spaces. 

But since coming into power, Meloni appears to have significantly softened her stance.

Her appointee for health minister, Orazio Schillaci, is a medical doctor who formed part of the team advising the Draghi administration on its handling of the pandemic.

Schillaci, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, has described the former government’s green pass scheme as an “indispensable tool for guaranteeing safety in university classrooms”.

Speaking at a session of the G20 on Tuesday, Meloni referenced the role of vaccines in bringing an end to the Covid pandemic.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of health personnel, vaccines, prevention, and the accountability of citizens, life has gradually returned to normal,’ the prime minister said in a speech.