Behind the scenes

How German media wound up misrepresenting the AstraZeneca jab

Political briefings - not facts and figures - may explain ‘incorrect’ claims

The German newspaper behind widely denied reports that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is only 8% effective in over-65s has doubled-down on its claims.

After the story was denied by both the German Health Ministry and the drug’s maker, Handelsblatt published a second article, headlined “controversy over AstraZeneca vaccine”, repeating “concerns about a low level of protection among seniors”. The story was also amplified by German tabloid Bild, which claimed the efficacy of the drug among over-65s was “less than 10%”, also citing anonymous sources.

Attributing the claims to a “multiple sources familiar with the German vaccination policy”, the journalist behind the Handelsblatt story has tweeted that the story is “a sourced piece of (political) reporting”, suggesting that it is not based on data seen by the paper.

AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot has denied the story in no uncertain terms, telling La Repubblica that “it’s incorrect… I don't know where these numbers come from”. Calling for people to “really focus on the details and focus on the regulators”, Soriot added: “There may also be local political considerations sometimes?”

And this is where the cracks within Handelsblatt’s reporting may be explained. 

Writing in the New Statesman, international correspondent Ido Vock notes that the report “emerged as a political story, briefed from political sources”. In other words, the Handelsblatt stories appear to be based not on facts and figures, “but briefings and counter-briefings from anonymous sources” that risk “muddying the waters by throwing around incendiary claims”.

In normal political coverage, basing stories on anonymous briefings is standard practice. But “the virus is not a political story suited to the palace intrigue of political journalism”, Vock says. “It is a medical story, and data such as the efficacy of a vaccine is not determined by government deliberation.”

In Handelsblatt’s follow-up story, published by last night, an anonymous source denied claims by the head of the European Medicines Agency and the German government that the report had confused the proportion of elderly people involved in clinical trials of the vaccine and its effectiveness among those age groups. 

“Confusing the numbers is impossible,” the source reportedly said, 

But more anonymous briefings - and no solid figures - have done little to diffuse the suggestion that the original story “was a load of cobblers”, says Politico’s Alex Wickham.

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