German expert panel's recommendation comes as an irate EU threatens to launch legal action against the drugmaker over its announced supply cuts in Europe.
AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine should only be given to people under the age of 65, Germany's vaccine committee has said, citing a lack of sufficient data to recommend use in older age groups. The move comes as the fight between an eager-to-jab European Union and the British-Swedish drugmaker escalates over Covid-19 vaccine supplies.
"There are currently insufficient data available to assess the vaccine efficacy from 65 years of age," the STIKO committee said in the resolution made available by the German Health Ministry on Thursday.
"The AstraZeneca vaccine, unlike the mRNA vaccines, should only be offered to people aged 18-64 years at each stage" said the panel of scientific experts about the vaccine, jointly developed with the University of Oxford.
AstraZeneca denied media reports this week that its vaccine was not very effective for people over 65, saying a strong immune response to the vaccine had been shown in blood analysis of elderly trial participants.
The World Health Organization's vaccine advisory panel tentatively scheduled a review of the AstraZeneca vaccine for February 8, an expert said.
"Reviewing the data from AstraZeneca, and we have tentatively — I have to underline tentatively — scheduled a meeting of SAGE to discuss policy recommendation on February 8th," Joachim Hombach, executive secretary of WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (SAGE), told a news briefing held as it issued recommendations on the use of the Moderna vaccine.
EU threatens legal measures over AstraZeneca supply
Europe’s fight to secure Covid-19 vaccine supplies further intensified on Thursday when the European Union warned drug companies such as AstraZeneca that it would use all legal means or even block exports unless they agreed to deliver shots as promised.
AstraZeneca said last week that it planned to cut initial deliveries in the EU from the scheduled 80 million doses scheduled to 31 million doses because of reduced yields from its manufacturing plants in Europe.
The EU demanded that AstraZeneca make up delays of its Covid-19 vaccine by supplying doses from its UK factories. UK firmly dug in and said it expected no disruptions in vaccine delivery.
Both the European Union and former member UK insisted the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company uphold contractual delivery promises to each of them – even as the company said there was not enough to go around.
The European Commission asked the Belgian government to inspect the factory in Belgium due to dissatisfaction with AstraZeneca’s explanations for its inability to deliver all the EU's expected doses on time.
EU officials are under tremendous political pressures because the vaccine rollout in the 27-nation bloc has gone much more slowly than the ones in Israel and the UK.
German media fumble efficacy reporting
The Handelsblatt economic daily earlier reported that Berlin had estimated the efficacy of the jab among over-65s was just 8 percent, citing sources.
Local German newspaper Bild reported the efficacy figure was "less than 10 percent."
In response the German Health Ministry said that there was no data to suggest efficacy was 8 percent in older people.
"At first glance, it appears that two things have been confused in the reports: About 8 percent of subjects in the AstraZeneca efficacy study were between 56 and 69 years of age, and only 3 to 4 percent were over 70 years of age," a ministry spokesperson told DW.
"However, this does not infer an efficacy of only 8 percent in the elderly."
The CEO of AstraZeneca, Pascal Soriot, said he had no idea where the 8 percent figure came from and that it was "incorrect," to Italian news outlet La Repubblica.
“The issue with the elderly data is not so much whether it works or not. It's that we have today a limited amount of data," Soriot told La Repubblica.
Soriot said the limited data is due to the Oxford programme's caution in running vaccination tests on older people too soon.
He said they did not wish to take the risk before doing extensive tests on younger subjects leading to less data than other manufacturers.
"But we have strong data showing very strong antibody production against the virus in the elderly, similar to what we see in younger people. It's possible that some countries, out of caution, will use our vaccine for the younger group. But honestly, it is fine," he told La Repubblica.
"There's not enough vaccines for everybody. So if they want to use another vaccine for older people and our vaccine for younger people, what's the problem? It’s not a problem," he added.