BERLIN – Slow off the blocks in the race to immunize its citizens against COVID-19, Germany faces an unfamiliar problem: a glut of vaccines and not enough arms to inject them into.
Like other countries in the European Union, its national vaccine campaign lags far behind that of Israel, Britain and the United States. On Wednesday the government gave in to growing calls in this country of 83 million to ditch the rulebook that many have blamed for holding Germany back.
“We want to use all flexibility,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said after lengthy negotiations with state governors in Berlin on adjusting pandemic measures.
Germany will follow the lead of other countries in extending the length of time between first and second shots as much as possible, allowing more people to get the initial dose and cutting the number held back to a minimum.
After initially limiting the AstraZeneca vaccine to people under 65, an independent expert committee is likely to recommend lifting that restrictions, said Merkel.
Vaccines that aren't taken up by those they're offered to will be made available to others, too, she added.
The measures sweep aside many of the rigid rules German officials have repeated in recent weeks — including Merkel, who said recently that at 66, she would not be taking the AstraZeneca vaccine because it wasn't approved for her.
The decision comes as Germany's stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccine doses looked set to top 2 million this week due to the restrictions it had imposed, even as many in the country wonder why they aren't being offered a shot.
Germans watched with morbid fascination in January as Britain trained an army of volunteers to deliver coronavirus shots, then marveled that the U.K. — hit far worse by the pandemic than Germany — managed to vaccinate more than half a million people on some days.
The U.S. drive-thru inoculation centers and the COVID-19 shots given out in American grocery store pharmacies drew bafflement in Germany — that is, until the country’s own plans for orderly vaccine appointments at specialized centers were overwhelmed by the demand.
Britain and the United States “had a much more pragmatic approach” to vaccination, said Hans-Martin von Gaudecker, a professor of economics at the University of Bonn. “What normally makes German bureaucracy stolid and reliable becomes an obstacle in a crisis and costs lives.”
France changed tactics on the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this week, allowing some people over 65 to get the shot after initially restricting its use to younger people. Health Minister Olivier Veran said the shot would soon also be available to people over 50 with health problems that make them more vulnerable.
France, which at more than 87,000 dead has among the highest coronavirus tolls in Europe, had used only 25% of the 1.6 million AstraZeneca vaccines it has received as of Tuesday.
Data this week from England’s mass vaccination program showed that both AstraZeneca and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were around 60% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in people over 70 after just a single dose. The analysis released by Public Health England, which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, also showed that both vaccines were about 80% effective in preventing hospitalizations among people over 80.
Belgium and Italy, too, are loosening their age restrictions for the AstraZeneca vaccine as they scramble to confront a looming third spike in COVID-19 cases driven by more contagious virus variants.
In Italy, Premier Mario Draghi's new government ousted the COVID-19 emergency czar this week and put an army general with expertise in logistics and experience in Afghanistan and Kosovo in charge of the country's vaccination program.
Denmark, meanwhile, stands out as an EU vaccination success story. The Scandinavian nation leads the bloc's vaccination tables along with tiny Malta and expects to vaccinate all adults by July — far ahead of the EU goal of 70% of adults vaccinated by September.
Better targeting available doses for those who need them is one way European countries hope to stay ahead of the virus in the coming months, as more contagious variants spread.
France and Spain plan to give just one shot of the two-dose vaccines to some people who have recovered from COVID-19, arguing that recent infections act as partial protection against the virus.
Italy, France and the Czech Republic are prioritizing vaccinations in outbreak hotspots — a measure Germany is also adding to its arsenal. Hungary's leader got a Chinese COVID-19 shot over the weekend and his country and Slovakia are buying Russia's Sputnik V to supplement other vaccines delivered by the EU. Poland's president has suggested that his country may follow Hungary's lead in getting Chinese vaccines.
The number of available vaccines across the EU could swell further next week if the European Medicines Agency follows the lead of the U.S. in approving the single-dose vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson. President Joe Biden has indicated the U.S. now expects to take delivery of enough coronavirus vaccine for all adults by the end of May — two months earlier than anticipated.
Merkel said the pace of Germany's vaccine campaign would “increase considerably” but refrained from setting a new target.
But in an effort to double the number of shots Germany administers — currently about 200,000 per day — she and the governors agreed to start letting doctors practices do vaccinations by April.
Bavaria’s governor, Markus Soeder, made clear that Germany wants to avoid any further stockpiling of vaccines.
“We will administer all the shots we can,” he said.
Raf Casert in Brussels, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Angela Charlton in Paris, Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Monika Sciclowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.
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