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Germany Is Seeing Virus Cases Go Down and Vaccinations Go Up

Germany Is Seeing Virus Cases Go Down and Vaccinations Go Up

The country appears to be breaking a tough third wave of the virus, and one of its tools is the AstraZeneca vaccine, which it spent months questioning.

A vaccination center in Berlin last month. Germany’s vaccination program is gaining steam, with nearly a third of the population receiving at least one dose.
Credit…Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Published May 7, 2021Updated May 8, 2021, 4:40 a.m. ET

BERLIN — Dr. Peter Weitkamp placed an ad in eBay’s classifieds last week, offering appointments for an AstraZeneca vaccine — “free/to give away” — to anyone over 60. Many of his own patients didn’t want it, since the German government had spent months questioning the vaccine.

But within a day, his practice in Kirchlengern, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, was inundated with calls from people seeking the remaining 80 to 90 doses, including some offering to drive in from out of state. Another family doctor got a similar response after setting up a drive-through vaccination center in a grocery store parking lot to administer AstraZeneca shots her that her own patients had rejected.

To the doctors, the response was proof that plenty of Germans were willing, even eager, for doses of AstraZeneca. Days later, the German government apparently agreed and relaxed previous restrictions that limited the AstraZeneca vaccine to certain age groups over concerns about rare but dangerous blood clots.

For months, Germany’s vaccine program had unfurled at a frustratingly slow pace and, at times, it seemed more focused on preventing people from receiving doses than encouraging them to get the shots.

ImageWaiting to get vaccinated with AstraZeneca at a drive-through vaccination in a supermarket parking lot in Pforzheim on Wednesday.
Credit…Michael Probst/Associated Press

But now, Germany appears to have entered a new, more hopeful phase of recovery. Daily rates of new infections have been dropping steadily since April 21, and the country’s vaccine numbers have risen quickly over the past months. On April 28 alone, the country administered more than one million shots. More than 30 percent of the population has now received an initial injection.

“We appear to have broken the third wave,” Jens Spahn, the country’s health minister, told reporters on Friday, while warning Germans not to get too excited too quickly, even with the prospect of eased restrictions in sight. “Now it’s a matter of sticking it out together over the next few weeks.”

In announcing the government’s latest policy change on AstraZeneca, Mr. Spahn did not make a scientific argument, though anyone under 60 who takes the shot will have to discuss the risks with a doctor. Instead, he emphasized the need for flexibility and getting more people vaccinated.

At the same, time, lawmakers are rushing a bill through Parliament that would lift coronavirus restrictions — from limits on the number of people who could meet up; to required proof of a negative rapid test to shop; or enforced quarantines after travel abroad — for anyone who is fully vaccinated.

With the prospect of having to spend the upcoming Ascension Day holiday weekend at home next week, many Germans now have their sights set on the three-day Whit Monday weekend at the end of the month as their chance to finally travel again. Domestic vacation destinations in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein are planning to open on May 17, with hygiene rules and a rapid testing regimen in place. Bavaria hopes to follow suit, along with Austria, a favorite destination for German tourists.

With talk of a vaccine passport to make travel within the European Union easier and Germany’s upper house of Parliament moving to exempt the fully vaccinated from many restrictions — social distancing and wearing a mask will still be required of everyone — many Germans who qualified for an AstraZeneca shot were reluctant to get one. That was partly because the rival two-dose vaccine from BioNTech and Pfizer could be completed in only six weeks, whereas the recommended wait between shots for the AstraZeneca vaccine was 12 weeks.

“We will make a lot more flexibility possible,” Mr. Spahn told the public television station WDR on Wednesday. “Many people want to have their second shot earlier, with an eye on summer, and that is possible with Astra.”

Credit…Maja Hitij/Getty Images

As part of the changes introduced on Thursday, Mr. Spahn said that Germany would allow the second AstraZeneca dose to be given after only four weeks, citing recommendations for the vaccine allowing for the flexible time span. A study published in The Lancet in February said the vaccine provided protection of more than 80 percent if the second shot was administered after 12 weeks, while after less than six weeks it provided only 55 percent protection.

“The considerable damage to the image of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is still unjustified, is also because of the uncertainty caused by the disastrous communication of its possible side effects by politicians and authorities among the population,” said Ulrich Weigeldt, the chairman of the German Association of Family Physicians.

The German health authorities initially limited its application to younger adults, because there was insufficient information on how older adults responded. Then they suspended it for several weeks because of reports of cases of rare blood clots accompanied by low platelet counts, before reintroducing it for people older than 60.

The uncertainty caused by the back-and-forth meant that many older patients who were eligible for shots of AstraZeneca chose to instead wait several weeks, or go elsewhere to receive the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.

“Covid vaccines are still such a scarce commodity,” Mr. Weigeldt said. “We can’t afford to waste them.”

Even as Germany was opening up shots of AstraZeneca to anyone, Britain’s vaccines regulator said that all adults under 40 in that country should be offered alternatives to the company’s vaccine. They cited the same potential risk of rare blood clots accompanied by low platelet counts that had led Germans to impose limits to the shot.

Over all, about 35 million people across Britain have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with 22.6 million getting the AstraZeneca shot. Last month, Britain began reopening retail shops and outdoor dining, at a time when Germans were still wrangling over the terms of a new lockdown. That included nightly curfews to slow a surging third wave of the virus and a cumbersome vaccine sign-up system riddled with bureaucratic hurdles, and overtaxed hotlines.

Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

“The British of course are all laughing, ‘Oh, the Germans again,’” said Henrike Thalenhorst, who is completing her residency in the office of Dr. Weitkamp, who offered the AstraZeneca appointments on eBay. “They are thinking, ‘While they are filling out six pieces of paper and waiting for an appointment we are all vaccinated with Astra and hitting the pubs.’”

But while AstraZeneca’s links to Britain made it a source of local pride, for Germans similar sentiments surround the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, which was developed by a start-up based in the western city of Mainz and known to some as “the Mercedes-Benz of vaccines.”

In a letter to the Neue Westfälische newspaper, one man described his decision to hold out against an offer of AstraZeneca as a matter of national pride. “As a not-yet-vaccinated 67-year-old German patriot,” wrote Lutz Schaal, from Bielefeld, “I am waiting for my BioNTech inoculation.”

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin and Megan Specia from London.

Source: Germany Is Seeing Virus Cases Go Down and Vaccinations Go Up

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