Fact check: the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’s effectiveness in older people

Fact check: the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’s effectiveness in older people
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Behind the scenes

German newspaper angers experts by casting doubt on the jab

26 Jan 2021

German health officials have shot down claims by a Dusseldorf-based newspaper that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is largely ineffective in protecting older people against Covid.

Handelsblatt reported overnight that Germany’s “federal government only expects an effectiveness of 8% among the over 65s” when the European Medicines Agency (EMA) publishes its evaluation of the Oxford vaccine later this week.

However, the German Health Ministry said this morning that the newspaper’s report had “muddled” two separate statistics – the proportion of elderly people included in trials and the effectiveness of the vaccine among those age groups.

“Around 8% of participants in the AstraZeneca efficacy trials were aged between 56 and 69 years old, only 3% to 4% were over 70,” officials said in a statement. “This does not result in an efficacy of only 8% among seniors.”

AstraZeneca also dismissed the paper’s report as “completely incorrect”. 

The Cambridge-based drugmaker told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “In November, we published data in The Lancet demonstrating that older adults showed strong immune responses to the vaccine, with 100% of older adults generating spike-specific antibodies after the second dose.”

Hammering home the denials, Oxford University said that “there was “was ‘no basis’ for the allegation, and that their data has already been ‘released transparently’”, the Daily Mail reports.

Why were the figures so wrong?

“Someone in Germany is clearly on a brutal briefing overdrive,” says Politico’s Alex Wickham, who notes that German tabloid Bild is also reporting “completely unverified” claims by German officials that the AstraZeneca vaccine will not receive EMA approval for use on over-65s. 

The Guardian, meanwhile, suggests that the claims may have been politically motivated.

“The report in Handelsblatt was published on the same day that the European Commission accused AstraZeneca of failing to give a satisfactory explanation for a huge shortfall of promised doses to member states,” the paper reports – sparking “speculation that the article was part of a retaliation strategy against the British-Swedish manufacturer”.