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Germany will make COVID vaccinations mandatory if Angela Merkel gets her way

December 2, 2021, 3:27 PM UTC

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany could impose a blanket COVID-vaccine mandate, one of the most ambitious of its kind anywhere in the world, as the country fights off a deadly record winter wave. The mandate would take effect early next year.

Describing the situation as “grave” only days before her caretaker government is due to be replaced, the 67 year-old chancellor told reporters on Thursday that federal and state governments had requested the 26 members of the independent German Ethics Council to present a recommendation for parliamentary debate before the end of the month.

“A general vaccine mandate could then take effect from February 2022, for example, conditional upon approval,” Merkel said.

Germany’s political leaders also agreed on sweeping new rules that would see further restrictions in movement for the unvaccinated. Those who cannot provide proof of inoculation or recent recovery will no longer be able to attend recreational events nor go shopping beyond purchasing day-to-day necessities, a blow to retailers just as they enter the peak holiday season. Moreover, fully vaccinated citizens can expect to lose their status after nine months without a booster shot.

The upcoming parliamentary vote over a mandate comes a mere hours after a report in the Handelsblatt that the outgoing health minister Jens Spahn had struck a deal with Merck & Co. that would see the U.S. pharmaceuticals giant supply Europe’s largest economy with its new COVID pill Lagevrio.

The German business daily confirmed with authorities that the country would receive the first batch of 80,000 pills over the coming months. A spokesperson for the health ministry could not be reached for comment.

One key benefit of the Lagrevio supply deal is that the orally administered therapeutic would ostensibly be used to treat COVID patients at home, without drawing upon hospital resources. The news comes amid reports that the pill and its active substance molnupiravir have proven less effective than initially hoped. 

On Wednesday, Merck—known as Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) outside of the U.S. and Canada—said updated results showed the pill reduced the risk of hospitalization or death among adults with mild to moderate disease by only 30%. This is less than a previous estimate, and well below rival treatment Paxlovid, from Pfizer

Another issue is that Lagevrio has yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency, which only started its rolling review of the treatment towards the end of last month. This means Germany would have to authorize it on an emergency basis.   

Thus far, the EMA has approved just three therapeutics for COVID: Last month, it green-lighted both Ronapreve and Regkirona for use as a COVID treatment—the first monoclonal antibody medicines—alongside remdesivir-based Veklury.

Fighting a losing battle

The new Lagevrio contract suggests Berlin fears it is losing its battle to contain the fourth, and so far worst, wave of the outbreak. Much like German-speaking neighbors Austria and Switzerland, the country has been dogged by a vaccination rate lower than other Western European countries. Part of the problem is the patchwork of different policies that vary regionally and encourage domestic tourism.

In Germany’s most densely populated state, officials from the city of Cologne elicited anger and incomprehension after approving a full stadium of 50,000 spectators for a football match between the local club and its regional arch-rival this past weekend. The Catholic stronghold had already come under fire for permitting residents to pack the streets on Nov. 11 to celebrate the traditional start to the Carnival season that ends with Lent.

Government officials and business leaders are sensing a change in the political winds as a majority of the population now appears to support mandatory vaccination. This week, the German chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz said he supported a compulsory vaccination law, breaking ranks with cabinet colleague Spahn.

Speaking at Thursday’s government briefing, Scholz said he was confident MPs in the lower house of parliament would back a blanket mandate of their own volition without the need for senior party whips to enforce legislative discipline.

“In my view, the German Bundestag should vote in favor of it,” he said, before adding he was “also pretty certain that that will be the case.”

Helping Scholz’s cause, more CEOs are coming out in favor of a mandate, including the head of blue-chip power grid operator E.On.

Scholz is expected to be voted in later this month as Chancellor under a new centre-left coalition that includes his Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals.

In a surprise, the head of the Liberals, Christian Lindner, came out in favor of the measure in spite of the party’s traditional core values of small government, broad individual freedoms and personal responsibility.

Speaking to German tabloid Bild on Thursday, he defended his stance as a necessary evil to end the chain of lockdowns hurting small business owners.

“We’re repeatedly finding ourselves in this situation, where liberties must be restricted for all,” said Lindner, the incoming finance minister. “We have to open ourselves up to a vaccine mandate. It’s a blunt instrument, but I believe it is proportionate.”

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