France will lengthen the period between the first and second shots of Covid-19 vaccines to six weeks from four weeks as of 14 April to accelerate the inoculation campaign, the country's health minister has said.
Although France's top health authority advised a six-week period between the two shots in January in order to stretch supplies, the government at the time said there was insufficient data on how well the vaccines performed with a longer interval.
France could safely do so now because it was vaccinating a younger age group, Olivier Veran said.
"(It) will allow us to vaccinate more quickly without reducing protection," the minister said in a newspaper interview.
France has approved use of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines.
Mr Veran also said that from tomorrow the AstraZeneca vaccine would be made available to all over-55s and not just those with serious pre-existing conditions.
After a glacial start, France's vaccine roll-out is hitting its stride, reaching a target of ten million first doses a week ahead of a mid-April target.
The government aims to deliver another ten million first shots by mid-May.
Johnson & Johnson would deliver its first 200,000 doses destined for France tomorrow, a week early, Veran Mr said.
President Emmanuel Macron, who was forced by a spiralling infection rate and overloaded healthcare system to impose a third nationwide lockdown, is counting on an accelerated vaccine roll-out to allow a gradual reopening of the country from the middle of next month.
The number of patients in intensive care continue to rise and France will almost certainly cross the 100,000 deaths threshold this week.
It reported over 43,000 new Covid-19 cases yesterday and said there were now 5,769 patients receiving critical care.
However, Mr Veran said there were signs that a new lockdown was beginning to slow the infection rate.
"It remains very high," Mr Veran told the newspaper said.
"We can expect that after a period of stabilisation comes the fall. But for that, we must keep going."
Sicilians refuse AZ vaccine: president
Up to 80% of people offered the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in Sicily refuse it out of fears over its safety, according to the southern Italian region's president Nello Musumeci.
Public confidence in the Anglo-Swedish jab has been badly shaken by reports linking it to rare, but potentially fatal, blood clots, and by conflicting recommendations on its use.
"In Sicily, there is an 80% refusal rate of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Every 100 people, 80 say no," Mr Musumeci said in Catania, according to multiple media reports.
He added: "It is natural" for people to be particularly concerned, "but we have a duty to believe scientists when they say it is more dangerous not to get vaccinated than to get vaccinated".
The president actually meant to say "up to 80%," his spokeswoman Michela Giuffrida said today, adding, as an example, that in the town of Syracuse the refusal rate was "30%".
A large-scale boycott of the AstraZeneca jab would put Italy's vaccination plan, already struggling with supply shortages and botched priorities, under further stress.