Emmanuel Macron has been accused of making “nonsense” and “untrue” claims about the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab that risked undermining public confidence in the UK’s vaccine programme.
Senior Conservative MPs and scientists accused the French president of failing to understand the science after he claimed the vaccine “doesn’t work as expected” and appeared to be “quasi-ineffective” in the over-65s.
Mr Macron also criticised the UK’s decision to give doses 12 weeks apart, claiming this could “accelerate the mutations” of the virus. He was speaking hours before the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use, stating that it could be used “in older adults”.
It was the latest salvo in the extraordinary row between Brussels and the UK over vaccines, which saw the EU row back on Friday night over moves to block jabs from crossing from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland.
The plans, which were part of wider moves by the EU to place controls on vaccine exports, threatened to effectively create a border on the island of Ireland and were met with a fierce international backlash.
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister branded it an “incredible act of hostility”, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, also condemned the move, warning that “seeking to control the export of vaccines undercuts the EU’s basic ethics.”
Separately, Micheal Martin, the Irish Taoiseach, expressed his alarm in tense discussions with Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, with sources indicating that neither the UK or Irish governments had been notified in advance.
After speaking to Mrs Foster and Mr Martin, the Prime Minister also spoke with Mrs von der Leyen, during which he expressed his “grave concerns about the potential impact which the steps the EU has taken today on vaccine exports could have.”
Michael Gove spoke to Maros Sefocovic, the European Commission vice president and his counterpart on the UK-EU joint-committee, to “express the UK’s concern over the lack of notification from the EU about its actions in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol.”
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, urged the EU to de-escalate tensions and deploy a “spirit of co-operation” with the UK to work through “an extraordinarily serious crisis”.
Facing mounting condemnation, the Commission on Friday night issued a statement confirming the U-turn, adding that it would “ensure the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected.”
Speaking in Paris on Friday afternoon, Mr Macron said of the AstraZeneca jab: “We’re waiting for the EMA [European Medicines Agency] results, but today everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.
“What I can tell you officially today is that the early results we have are not encouraging for 60 to 65-year-old people concerning AstraZeneca.”
Sir John Bell, the regius chair of medicine at the University of Oxford who led the vaccine trials and is a member of the UK vaccine task force, said Mr Macron’s comments were “very unfair and also untrue”.
“This statement suggests he has not looked at the clinical or immunogenicity data which shows it is excellent in the over-65s,” Sir John said. “There is ample evidence of strong antibody responses in this age group and you can be certain they will respond to the vaccine. Perhaps he is trying to reduce demand for the vaccine for some reason.”
Greg Clark, the chairman of the Commons science committee, said: “It seems that President Macron has made an error. It is nonsense.”
The former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: “His reckless remarks damage public health by playing into the hands of the anti-vaxxers on a false premise. In this respect, he out-trumps Donald Trump.”
The EU has announced a list of 90 countries that are exempt from its exports block but refused to include Britain, stoking fears that it could seek to hold back the Belgian-made Pfizer vaccine in retaliation for AstraZeneca refusing to divert supplies from its British manufacturing plants.
Confirming the new controls, the EU said: “To tackle the current lack of transparency of vaccine exports outside the EU, the Commission is putting in place a measure requiring that such exports are subject to an authorisation by Member States.
“In the process of finalisation of this measure, the Commission will ensure that the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected. The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause.
“Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal.
“In the process of finalising the document, the commission will also be fine-tuning the decision-making process under the implementing regulation.”
While AstraZeneca argues that it is under no obligation to reroute supplies to make up for a shortfall caused by a problem at one of its European plants, it is understood that Mr Johnson is discussing the possibility of releasing some jabs to prevent the rapidly escalating row turning into a “vaccine war”.
Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden and co-chairman of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “I had hoped not to see the EU leading the world down the destructive path of vaccine nationalism. Our continent’s entire history of success has been one of open global value chains.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury also waded into the row, writing on social media that “Christian social teaching” originally inspired the EU, which has “solidarity” at its heart. He continued: “Seeking to control the export of vaccines undercuts the EU’s basic ethics. They need to work together with others.”
The European Commission tried to increase pressure further on AstraZeneca on Friday by publishing its contract with the company, which it claimed showed it was entitled to doses produced in Britain.
However, senior British lawyers said the contract appeared to show the opposite, while David Jones, the deputy chairman of the European Research Group of Tory MPs, accused Brussels of vaccine “piracy”.
Both AstraZeneca and the Oxford scientists who developed the vaccine pointed out that the EMA’s approval of the jab showed it was safe to use.
GPs expressed concern that members of the public had already begun objecting to being vaccinated with the AstraZeneca jab following incorrect reports over its efficacy in the over-65s published by German media news organisations earlier this week.
While the German vaccine regulator has limited its use to people under 65, it has made clear that this is due to a lack of data from the trials, owing to the limited number of elderly participants, rather than any clear evidence that it is not effective.
On Friday, France announced that it was toughening its border controls from Sunday, banning all arrivals from outside the EU except for essential travel. Germany is also set to ban arrivals from a number of countries affected by mutations of the virus, including Britain, according to draft government regulations.
Visitors from the UK are already barred from entering both countries, with some very limited exceptions.