Fierce debate erupted in Italy after the government stopped using the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in people under the age of 60, saying that people in that age group who had already received a first dose of this vaccine should get a different vaccine for theirs second would get.
“Mixing cocktails is one thing,” Matteo Salvini, leader of the nationalist league party, which is part of the government, told reporters on Tuesday when he asked for clear and consistent instructions: “Mixing vaccines is different . “
Last week’s announcement was the latest in a series of political backlashes surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine that have puzzled and angry many Italians.
When reports circulated that an 18-year-old girl who received the vaccine had died of thrombosis after being hospitalized, the government said it had reassessed the vaccine and concluded that the virus was spreading in on Italy slowed down significantly, the benefits of using the vaccine in people under 60 no longer outweighed the risks.
Other countries have also explored mix-and-match approaches to second doses, particularly after safety concerns emerged about the apparent association of the AstraZeneca vaccine with some deaths due to the rare blood clotting disease. In France, around 500,000 people were eligible for a different booster dose in April after the government stopped using the AstraZeneca vaccine in people under 55.
Experiments are ongoing around the world to test the mix-and-match approach, which scientists call heterologous prime boost. Citing data from two clinical trials in Spain and one in the UK, the Italian Medicines Agency said the approach was safe and effective.
Still, the idea is met with opposition in Italy, where it would affect nearly a million people aged 18 to 59 who received the first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“We will not be giving any vaccines other than the first dose,” said Vincenzo De Luca, president of Campania, the southern Italian region that includes Naples, in a statement on Sunday. “The current level of confusion could jeopardize the continuation of the vaccination campaign.”
(Mr De Luca later said his region would comply with government policies but insisted that there was a “communication chaos” about vaccines.)
Public health researchers also asked questions about what they called “creative vaccination”.
“The scientific evidence on this subject is still preliminary today and maintains a certain amount of uncertainty,” said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the GIMBE research foundation, on Italian radio.
Others criticized the government’s changing vaccine policy more bluntly. “We don’t understand anything anymore,” wrote Luca Pani, a former director of the Italian Medicines Agency, in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, “except for the fact that they put one patch on top of the other and turned the AstraZeneca saga into a monster.”
The top health official of the Lazio region, which also includes Rome, said that since the directive was announced, around 10 percent of affected people in his region have skipped or canceled their second dose appointments or went without an injection when they were told that it would be a different vaccine. He said the government should allow people to choose whether to stay with AstraZeneca for their second shot.
Constant Méheut Contribution to reporting from Paris.