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France tries caution and transparency to convince vaccine sceptics

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A slickly produced movie posted online last month entitled Hold-Up purported to reveal the vast conspiracy behind the Covid-19 pandemic. Among its allegations, greedy pharmaceutical companies were rushing vaccines to market by cutting corners in clinical trials.

Scientists and fact-checkers moved quickly to debunk its theories. Yet since its release, the crowdfunded film made by two French independent television producers has been viewed roughly 6m times, according to French media and researchers, spreading on social media thanks to anti-mask advocates and vaccine sceptics.

The film’s success is the latest sign of the challenges facing France’s health authorities as they prepare to vaccinate the world’s most sceptical population against Covid-19. It is a scepticism many governments around the world need to overcome to various degrees as they seek to put an end to the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.

“France has really been rocked by this issue of vaccine hesitancy for the last ten years,” said Jeremy Ward, a sociologist at research institute CNRS. “In the public health community, we’ve been wringing our hands for months about how to handle this.”

BgRead: From the time a vaccine is available, when would you become vaccinated

The French are “the most sceptical people in the world about the safety of vaccines”, according to a 2018 Gallup-Wellcome Trust study of 140,000 people in 140 countries. One in three French people disagreed that vaccines were safe, the highest percentage for any country, while one in five disagreed about their efficacy, the second highest. 

Nearly a year into a pandemic that has killed nearly 57,000 French people and forced two national lockdowns, almost half of respondents to a recent Ipsos poll said they would not get vaccinated. That was far higher than the British at 21 per cent or the Chinese at 15 per cent, and topped the Americans at 36 per cent.

Whether the government and public health officials can overcome such distrust will be a key test that could provide lessons for other countries seeking to roll out vaccines quickly to snuff out the coronavirus. 

One strategy authorities are adopting is to inject a dose of prudence into their advice to the public regarding the safety of a new technology used by the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Known as messenger RNA, the approach sees the body’s protein-making machinery altered instead of traditional vaccines’ reliance on weakened viruses to spur immune response.

Soon after Britain became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, several prominent French doctors said it was too early to declare the mRNA-based shot safe and effective.

Alain Fischer, the government’s top vaccine adviser, called for time to allow European and French regulators to complete their assessment. “We only have two to three months of perspective on the safety and efficacy data of these vaccines,” he said on television. “The data is not yet complete either to know if they protect against transmitting the virus.”

“There is still a lot we don’t know about the virus . . . And we do not obviously know everything about the vaccines that are coming,” French president Emmanuel Macron said on 4 December.

Vaccine scepticism in France

Dr Fischer also pledged to convene a wide group of stakeholders — including family doctors, patient advocates and experts in vaccine hesitancy — to come up with a Covid-19 rollout plan. A separate committee of 30 citizens chosen at random will represent the public.

Dr Fischer and other experts may be trying to be transparent so as to build confidence, according to sociologist Jeremy Ward.

The home country of famed microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who helped discover the principles of vaccination in the 1870s, was not always so sceptical. As recently as 2005, around 90 per cent of French were favourable towards vaccination, said Jocelyn Raude, a sociologist at EHESP, the French school of public health.

Then a “sequence of events” occurred, he said. The H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 was perceived as having been badly handled. The government ordered millions of doses of vaccine while fears over their safety made headlines. The vaccination drive held in stadiums, tents, and public buildings backfired. Only 8 per cent of the population took the vaccine, and when the flu strain ebbed, the government was criticised for wasting money. 

Clémence, a 42-year-old businesswoman who lives near Paris, recalled the “bad experience” of taking her asthmatic son to get the H1N1 shot. “It was done in a tent and pretty disorganised, and later we were told the second shot wasn’t even necessary. I have been distrustful ever since,” she said.

Shortly after, a diabetes drug was withdrawn from the market after causing thousands of deaths in the so-called Mediator scandal, stoking concern about conflicts of interests and the pharmaceutical industry, according to Dr Raude.

Then, as in other countries, social media gave vaccine sceptics new ways to amplify their voices. By 2010, 40 per cent of the French declared themselves to be wary of vaccines, studies showed. “Attitudes shifted surprisingly quickly and vaccine hesitancy has remained deep,” said Dr Raude. 

In 2016 Dr Fischer was handed the mission of holding a “citizens debate” on vaccine policy following measles outbreaks and declining vaccination rates. It led France in 2018 to expand the list of required children’s vaccines from three to 11, making them obligatory for those attending state schools.

This time, however, the government will not make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory. It will count on family doctors to encourage patients to take it, as well as administer it. “It cannot be an order from the top coming from the state,” Dr Fischer said.

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain

 



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Europe

German regulator steps in as Greensill warns of threat to 50,000 jobs

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Germany’s financial watchdog has taken direct oversight of day-to-day operations at Greensill Bank, as the lender’s ailing parent company warned that its loss of $4.6bn of credit insurance could cause a wave of defaults and 50,000 job losses.

BaFin appointed a special representative to oversee Greensill Bank’s activities in recent weeks, according to three people familiar with the matter, as concern mounted about the state of the lender’s balance sheet.

The German-based lender is one part of a group — advised by former UK prime minister David Cameron and backed by SoftBank — that extends from Australia to the UK and is now fighting for its survival.

On Monday night Greensill was denied an injunction by an Australian court after the finance group tried to prevent its insurers pulling coverage.

Greensill’s lawyers said that if the policies covering loans to 40 companies were not renewed, Greensill Bank would be “unable to provide further funding for working capital of Greensill’s clients”, some of whom were “likely to become insolvent, defaulting on their existing facilities”.

In turn that may “trigger further adverse consequences”, putting over 50,000 jobs around the world at risk, including more than 7,000 in Australia, the company’s lawyers told the court.

A judge ruled Greensill had delayed its application “despite the fact that the underwriters’ position was made clear eight months ago” and denied the injunction.

Greensill Capital is locked in talks with Apollo about a potential rescue deal, involving the sale of certain assets and operations. It has also sought protection from Australia’s insolvency regime.

Greensill was dealt a severe blow on Monday when Credit Suisse suspended $10bn of funds linked to the supply-chain finance firm, citing “considerable uncertainties” about the valuation of the funds’ assets. A second Swiss fund manager, GAM, also severed ties on Tuesday. Credit Suisse’s decision came after credit insurance expired, according to people familiar with the matter.

While the bulk of Greensill’s business is based in London, its parent company is registered in the Australian city of Bundaberg, the hometown of its founder Lex Greensill.

In Germany, where Greensill has owned a bank since 2014, BaFin, the financial watchdog, is drawing on a section of the German banking act that entitles the regulator to parachute in a special representative entrusted “with the performance of activities at an institution and assign [them] the requisite powers”.

The regulator has been conducting a special audit of Greensill Bank for the past six months and may soon impose a moratorium on the lender’s operations, these people said.

Concern is growing among regulators about the quality of some of the receivables that Greensill Bank is holding on its balance sheet, two people said. Regulators are also scrutinising the insurance that the lender has said is in place for its receivables.

Greensill Bank has provided much of the funding to GFG Alliance, a sprawling empire controlled by industrialist Sanjeev Gupta.

“There has been an ongoing regulatory audit of the bank since autumn,” said a spokesman for Greensill. “This regulatory audit report has specifically not revealed any malfeasance at the bank. We have constructive ongoing dialogue with all regulators in all jurisdictions where we operate.”

The spokesman added that all of the banks assets are “unequivocally” covered by insurance.

Greensill, a 44-year-old former investment banker, has said that the idea for his company was shaped by his experiences growing up on a watermelon farm in Bundaberg, where his family endured financial hardships when large corporations delayed payments.

Greensill Capital’s main financial product — supply-chain finance — is controversial, however, as critics have said it can be used to disguise mounting corporate borrowings.

Even if an agreement is struck with Apollo, it could still effectively wipe out shareholders such as SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which poured $1.5bn into the firm in 2019. SoftBank’s $100bn technology fund has already substantially written down the value of its stake.

Gupta, a British industrialist who is one of Greensill’s main clients, separately saw an attempt to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from Canadian asset manager Brookfield collapse.

Executives at Credit Suisse are particularly nervous about the supply-chain finance funds’ exposure to Gupta’s opaque web of ageing industrial assets, said people familiar with the matter.

The FT reported earlier on Tuesday that Credit Suisse has larger and broader exposure to Greensill Capital than previously known, with a $160m loan, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Additional reporting by Laurence Fletcher and Kaye Wiggins in London



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FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies

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The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22



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EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel

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Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent Lastminute.com, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.

 





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