Politicians in Germany are stepping out in support of the AstraZeneca vaccine as public scepticism around the Oxford-developed product is threatening to hamper Europe’s Covid-19 immunisation programme.
The vaccine, subject of an acrimonious tug-of-war between its British-Swedish manufacturer and the European commission last month, is now being described by German media as a “shelf warmer” as only around 17% of doses delivered to the country have been administered so far.
According to the German disease control agency’s monitoring, 129,021 doses of a delivered 736,800 had been administered by Thursday this week.
The health minister, Jens Spahn, on Friday issued a public display of confidence in the vaccine, describing it as a “privilege” to be offered an injection with the “safe and effective” British jab. The Berlin mayor, Michael Müller, threatened to send people to the back of the queue if they refuse it and ask for alternatives.
“I won’t allow tens of thousands of doses to lie around on our shelves while millions of people across the country are waiting to be immunised,” he told Tagesspiegel newspaper. “Those who don’t want the vaccine have missed their chance.”
German medical authorities have only authorised the vaccine for under-65s following criticism of AstraZeneca’s trial data for older people, meaning the vaccine is currently being offered to healthcare workers and younger people with pre-existing conditions.
Side effects that can follow a shot of the Oxford-developed vaccine, which were reported in clinical trials, are also causing logistical problems in its use among medics.
Karl-Dieter Heller, the director of the Herzogin Elisabeth hospital in Braunschweig, told Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that he had decided to vaccinate his staff only in smaller groups and on Fridays, after 40% of one group called in sick with flu-like symptoms after receiving their jab on a Thursday.
Heller said none of his staff had fallen seriously ill and all of them were able to return to work on the Monday after.
Other countries report similar problems. In Sweden’s Sörmland and Gävleborg regions, health authorities temporarily paused vaccinations after a quarter of workers injected with the AstraZeneca shot called in sick the following day, but added the programme would resume with the same vaccine the following week.
In southwestern France, a hospital in Perigueux asked in an open letter that the AstraZeneca vaccine be replaced with shots from Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer after 50% to 70% of injected staff experienced side-effects.
At the general hospital in the Austrian capital, Vienna, 500 members of staff signed a protest letter after finding out they would receive the AstraZeneca shot rather than the BioNTech/Pfizer one.
Limited data from AstraZeneca’s early trials and some misleading reporting in German media have also fuelled scepticism among health workers, with authorities in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia complaining that 600 scheduled appointments were skipped between 10 and 15 February.
AstraZeneca has been shown to be about 60% effective in trials, while studies point to about 95% efficacy for the BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. The British vaccine has the advantage of not requiring deep-freeze storage, however, and the company’s chief medical officer says it is 100% effective at preventing death and severe illness with Covid-19.
Several surveys suggest that large parts of the public in Germany and other European countries remain cautious about taking up the offer of a vaccine more generally, though confidence levels have risen considerably in recent weeks.
Social Democrat politician and trained doctor Karl Lauterbach said on Thursday he would join the vaccination effort at a centre in Leverkusen and looked forward to receiving the AstraZeneca jab there, but on announced via Twitter that he had to cancel due to safety concerns around a planned anti-vaxxer protest.
In the German capital, Berlin, health senator Dilek Kalayci conceded it may have been a mistake to promise residents the freedom to choose between different available vaccines, after reports that thousands of AstraZeneca doses at the vaccination centre at Berlin’s former Tegel airport remained unused.
While German medical authorities advise against mixing different vaccines between the first and the second shot, Spahn suggested people could theoretically receive a booster shot with a product from a different manufacturer at a later date.