France has begun administering Covid-19 vaccine booster shots to people aged over-65 and those with underlying health conditions, as the highly contagious Delta variant is spreading in the country.
France is the first big EU country to introduce widespread booster shots, and several other European countries are expected to follow suit.
Many countries are still struggling to administer first doses of Covid-19 vaccines and the World Health Organisation (WHO) had called for a moratorium on boosters and also urged governments to donate vaccines to needy countries.
People in France qualify for the jab if a minimum six-month period has passed since they were fully vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
Those who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson jab could get a booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna at least four weeks after they were first vaccinated.
A nationwide booster campaign is due to start in nursing homes on September 12.
About 18 million people are estimated to be eligible for the booster shot, the health ministry said.
The French government has followed the recommendations of the country’s health authority, the HAS, which said last month that “recent studies suggest a fall in the vaccine’s effectiveness, especially with the Delta variant”.
The elderly and people with underlying health conditions were the most affected by the drop over time, the authority said.
The booster shot was already available in France for some particularly vulnerable people, including transplant recipients and others with weakened immune systems.
The French government has so far made no decision regarding the potential extension of the campaign to the whole population.
France has been facing high numbers of confirmed infections since July, with a slight decrease in recent weeks, from more than 23,000 per day around mid-August to 17,000 now. But many fear a reverse of the trend as children go back to school after summer holidays on Thursday.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal warned that “almost half of ICU beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients, which is still substantial and preoccupying. So it is imperative that we maintain our efforts … the upcoming weeks are not without risks”.
Almost 44 million people, or 65.6% of the French population, are fully vaccinated.
France’s decision to launch its booster campaign comes as the European Medicines Agency said it was reviewing data to see if booster shots were needed.
Meanwhile, the authorities in the German capital Berlin have started offering booster shots to elderly care home residents. Several other German states have already begun offering boosters to vulnerable people.
Israel has expanded its coronavirus booster shot programme to include anyone aged over 12 – the latest phase of a booster programme that began in July with Israelis aged over 60.
And US health officials recently announced plans to dispense booster shots to all Americans. The campaign is expected to have started by the end of September.
The head of the WHO’s European branch, Dr Hans Kluge, said this week that he agreed with the top US infectious diseases expert that a third dose of coronavirus vaccines could help protect the people most vulnerable, and it should not be seen as a “luxury booster”.