A desperate Germany turns to vaccine-hesitant Eastern Europe for COVID jabs

December 16, 2021, 12:56 PM UTC

In its desperate quest to ward off a deadly fourth wave of COVID-19, Germany is now looking to those less fortunate for help. 

New health minister Karl Lauterbach said the country would turn to poorer EU neighbors to its east, which enjoy an apparent surplus of doses allocated to them under the bloc’s joint purchasing scheme.

“As an emergency measure, I’m now trying to buy vaccines from Eastern Europe,” he told German public broadcaster ZDF on Wednesday evening. 

“There are supplies that these countries either already have or to which they are entitled but cannot use, and I’m trying to procure them so that we can continue inoculating people without interruption,” he said.

Owing largely to vaccine skepticism in its former Communist eastern half, Germany is a laggard among Western European nations, with just below 70% of the population fully vaccinated. Eastern EU member states like Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia have proved even less successful in motivating their citizens to get vaccinated, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Germany’s scramble for vaccine doses comes after Lauterbach’s admission on Tuesday that authorities are running dangerously low on vaccines. This has prompted soul searching in a wealthy industrialized country that takes pride in its efficient management and organizational prowess.

Speaking to the Welt news channel, the head of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians blasted the government’s failure to order enough supply. “It’s an extremely poor signal for the vaccine campaign,” said Andreas Gassen, who represents the country’s HMO doctors.

Dwindling supplies

While four vaccines are currently approved for use by the European Medicines Agency, the EU has focused mainly on purchasing the two mRNA-based vaccines: Comirnaty, from Germany’s own BioNTech, and Spikevax, from U.S.-based Moderna. (Comirnaty is licensed for sale by Pfizer in most global markets.)

By Lauterbach’s figures, Germany will be able to distribute only about 3 million doses of Comirnaty over the next three weeks. The supply of Moderna’s Spikevax is also set to drop, to 1.5 million per week starting in January, prompting the health minister to warn there is not enough to continue vaccinating Germans at the current high pace in the first quarter. 

On Thursday, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute reported that 1.5 million doses were administered over the previous 24-hour period, a new record.

To add to Lauterbach’s problems, Spikevax is not recommended for people under 30 in Germany. The country’s standing commission on vaccines, or “STIKO,” based this controversial judgment on an increased risk of myocarditis and pericarditis, two types of heart muscle inflammation, in younger people who received the vaccine.

Mandate coming

The shortfall comes at the worst possible time for Germany. The country will likely see cases spiking in the near term thanks to the expected spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant throughout Europe. Worse, Germans will soon need to prove they are inoculated, once parliament is expected to pass laws making it compulsory.

“It’s a dramatic situation,” Alena Buyx, the head of the German Ethics Council, told ZDF. Buyx is tasked with providing a recommendation over the pros and cons of such a mandate to legislators by the end of this month. “I can only hope that Karl Lauterbach succeeds in acquiring very quickly a very large number of doses,” she added.  

For Lauterbach, the death toll from Germany’s fourth COVID wave has proved a humiliation for the country, which was operating under a caretaker government when the wave began

“In the first three waves we had a mortality rate here in Germany that was lower than other countries, and I was very proud that we got a lot of things right,” Lauterbach said. “That’s all gone now. Indeed in some cases it’s higher than those with whom we always compared ourselves, and that is appalling.”

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