How will the AstraZeneca suspension affect Italy’s vaccine rollout plans?

How will the AstraZeneca suspension affect Italy’s vaccine rollout plans?
Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
Italy has set an ambitious new vaccination target - but will the plan be derailed by delays and public concerns over AstraZeneca's safety?

Most of Italy is back in lockdown from Monday, but the new government hopes its updated coronavirus vaccine plan will make this one the last.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently unveiled a new vaccination strategy that aims to massively speed up inoculations to cover 80 percent of the population by September.

However, trouble with the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine – temporarily suspended in Italy and across much of the EU due to safety concerns – risks upending the plan before it gets going.

READ ALSO: Italy ‘right to be cautious’ in suspending AstraZeneca vaccine, says health minister

“It is a big mess, there is no point denying it,” Giorgio Mule, a junior defence minister, told Il Messaggero newspaper.

Draghi’s plan counts on Italy receiving 16 million vaccine shots by the end of the month, rising to 52 million during the second quarter of the year, and 85 million in the third quarter.

Vaccine
Photo: Martin BUREAU/AFP

But a large number of those doses are supposed to come from AstraZeneca: 2.9 million in the next couple of weeks, 10 million in the second quarter and 25 million in the third quarter.

While Italy may reinstate the AstraZeneca vaccine, if it is cleared by the European Medicines Agency on Thursday, there are fears the suspension will increase public uncertainty and fuel the already relatively strong anti-vax movement in Italy.

“I am perplexed and embittered,” health councillor for the Lazio region Alessio D’Amato, told Il Corriere della Sera on Tuesday. “I’m concerned about the climate of mistrust and doubt, the suspicion and fear that will be generated in people regarding a vaccine on which Italy has focused on a lot.”

The move already looks likely to have delayed the programme, as Italian media reported on Tuesday that “tens of thousands” of people will now have to reschedule cancelled vaccine appointments.

Many people had already reportedly cancelled their appointments in recent days amid uncertainty about the AstraZeneca jab’s safety.

And public perceptions that the AstraZeneca vaccine may have more significant side-effects, such as mild flu symptoms, meant that uptake of the jab had already been slow in the country.

CHARTS: How many people has Italy vaccinated so far?

Draghi, who took over at the head of a new government last month, has set a target of nearly tripling the number of daily vaccine injections to 500,000 per day.

This should lead to 60 percent of the population getting fully vaccinated by late July, rising to 70 percent in late August and 80 percent in mid-September, according to the strategy.

Only around two million people in Italy have so far received the necessary two vaccine shots, out of a population of about 60 million.

Priority groups

Like other EU countries, Italy’s vaccination programme has been dogged by delays in supplies of jabs – but experts say these are not entirely to blame for the slow progress.

Carlo Palermo, head of doctors’ trade union Anaoo Assomed, said Italy had a good start in January when it focused on health workers and care homes, but then struggled to scale up.

This was partly due to personnel shortages, with a drive to recruit some 12,000 extra nurses as vaccinators eliciting only around 4,000 applications, he told AFP.

There has also been poor coordination between regions on prioritisation. 

Tuscany, for example, focused on vaccinating lawyers, so many healthy people in their 30s and 40s have had the shots.

Across Italy, only a third of the 6.85 million vaccine doses administered so far have gone to people aged 70 or above, despite their increased vulnerability to coronavirus.

“The extent to which vaccines have so far been administered to relatively young categories is quite surprising … and cannot be explained on health grounds,” Federico Santi, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, told AFP. 

READ ALSO: Which countries in Europe have suspended AstraZeneca vaccinations?

The government is now recruiting the help of pharmacists, trainee doctors, dentists and family doctors to administer the jabs, and will bring in the army and civil protection agency to help struggling regions like Calabria in the south.

It is expanding vaccine facilities, opening large-scale hubs and repurposing car parks, shopping centres, gyms, factories and even church property – although one centre in Rome’s Termini station shut down on Tuesday due a shortage of AstraZeneca jabs.

There are concerns that more supply shortages are possible, Santi said, noting that Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are among the pharma companies struggling with production delays.

“Supplies remain the big question mark,” he said.

Photo by Tiziana FABI/AFP

Member comments

  1. I am perplexed by this. AZ is only 63% effective meaning that there is a 40% chance that the jab from AZ is worthless. This makes no sense particularly since the vaccine is more effective for younger people and less for older folks like me. Italy may have saved money, they may be paying less, but they are getting a less effective vaccine than Pfizer or Moderna in return. It is one thing to need a vaccine to feel safe and evidently, it is another to be able to get vaccines that are more effective.

    Thank you to The Local for helping us all stay up with an obviously fluid situation….. yuk, yuk. AW STITES – happy subscriber!

    1. Even if you have a 40% chance of catching Covid after the vaccine, it is most certainly not useless. 60% won’t catch Covid, but more importantly, those who do catch it are very significantly less likely to need hospital or go into intensive care or die. The programme has been so effective in the UK that now only 5-10% of hospital admissions are by Covid patients- ICU admissions and deaths are plummeting. Israel is the most advanced, vaccination-wise, of any country and their statistics are even more dramatic.

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