Germany’s new health minister delivers a bombshell: The country doesn’t have enough COVID-19 vaccines

Germany is running out of COVID-19 vaccines—even before Omicron can begin to wreak havoc. 

Angela Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, reaffirmed on Wednesday his goal as the new chancellor of administering 30 million jabs—whether as first, second, or booster doses—by the end of this year. Yet the push to defeat Delta could leave the country out of stock just as the new, highly contagious Omicron strain threatens to spread like wildfire.

After assuming responsibility last week for the country’s effort to defeat the virus, Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach took inventory of Germany’s supply, only to discover it faces a shortage for the first quarter of 2022.

“It’s true that we have too few doses,” he told German public broadcaster ARD on Tuesday evening. “That surprised many of us following the audit, myself included.”

Perhaps the most controversial figure in the new cabinet because of his reputation as a loose cannon, Lauterbach said he was exploring all legal options at his disposal to acquire more doses within the limits of coordinated EU-wide vaccine procurement policies.

EU summit

On Thursday, leaders from the 27 EU member states are expected to debate the COVID situation and the threat presented by Omicron at a regular summit meeting of the European Council in Brussels.

“We will also address global cooperation, including how we can step up our efforts and remove bottlenecks in the sharing and administration of vaccines,” EU Council President Charles Michel wrote on Tuesday in his invitation letter to the heads of government.

Lauterbach’s discovery of Germany’s shortage is not the first warning sign related to Germany’s supply, however. His predecessor Jens Spahn came under heavy fire after he said last month the government would begin rationing supply of the domestically popular BioNTech vaccine Comirnaty, developed in Germany and licensed for sale in most of the world by partner Pfizer

Instead, more people would have to accept Spikevax from U.S.-based Moderna, according to the former health minister. Not only was Spahn criticized for seeming to discourage Germans from being inoculated, it emerged that supplies of the U.S. alternative mRNA vaccine were nearing their expiration date and would have to be otherwise destroyed.

Radical measures

On Wednesday, Chancellor Scholz tried to strike a confident note, telling Germany’s lower house of parliament his year-end goal remained within reach, with 19 million doses, or nearly two-thirds, already administered to date. 

“The federal government will not rest for a single solitary moment; rather we will continue to pull every possible lever at our disposal until each of us has fully returned to our previous lives and we have regained all our freedoms,” he said during his government’s first policy address to the Bundestag.

In the coming weeks, the lower house is expected to hold an open vote over a vaccine mandate that could go into effect as early as February.

The impending first-quarter 2022 shortage ironically comes only weeks after reports emerged in the summer that the country, among the least vaccinated in Western Europe, had ordered too many doses. At the time, few people expected the fourth wave to be Germany’s worst, and Omicron had not yet been discovered.

The surplus doses were meant to be donated to international body COVAX for distribution to developing countries, but that had been hampered by contractual obligations. Manufacturers like BioNTech must give final approval, a measure introduced to minimize their liability. 

The waning supplies now threaten to derail Germany’s COVID efforts, however, since boosters are expected to be a key tool in defusing the Delta surge before Omicron can potentially overwhelm health authorities. 

In the U.K., new estimates suggest the country should surpass South Africa as the epicenter of the highly contagious Omicron variant, if indeed it has not already.

When asked whether more restrictions could be imposed in the coming days, Lauterbach reaffirmed his pledge that the ministry under his leadership would rely more heavily on scientific advice when formulating policy.

“If the expert opinion should be a recommendation to implement radical measures,” he told ARD, “then we would certainly consider that.”

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