World Events

Germany Is Seeing Virus Cases Go Down and Vaccinations Go Up

BERLIN — When one patient after the other turned down Dr. Peter Weitkamp’s offer to inoculate them with AstraZeneca, a vaccine the German government has spent months questioning, he figured there must be people out there who wanted the shot. He just had to find them.

Last Saturday afternoon, he placed an ad in eBay’s classifieds, offering appointments for an AstraZeneca vaccine, “free/to give away” to anyone over 60. 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.

After another family doctor set up a drive-through vaccination center in a grocery store parking lot, in an effort to get hundreds of AstraZeneca shots in arms before the doses expired, German health authorities took notice.

On Thursday, German health officials announced that anyone willing to receive the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca could get one, even though the country has been limiting the shot’s use over concerns about rare but dangerous blood clots.

When the country’s health minister, Jans Spahn, made the announcement on Thursday, he did not make a scientific argument, though those under 60 who want the shot will have to discuss the risks with a doctor. He focused on flexibility and getting more people vaccinated, which is what Germany is doing after months of struggling against a tough third wave of the coronavirus. The country’s vaccine program began at a frustratingly slow pace, and, at times, it seemed more focused on preventing people from receiving doses than encouraging them.

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. Today, more than 30 percent of the population has received an initial injection.

“We appear to have broken the third wave,” Mr. Spahn 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.”

The new stance on AstraZeneca came as lawmakers were rushing a bill through Parliament that would lift restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus — from limits on the number of people who could meet up to required proof of a negative rapid tests 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-Pfizer could be completed in only six weeks, whereas the recommended wait between shots for AstraZeneca was 12 weeks.

“We will make a lot more flexibility possible,” Mr. Spahn told 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.”

As part of the changes introduced on Thursday, Mr. Spahn said that Germany would allow the second AstraZeneca vaccine to be given after only four weeks, citing recommendations for the vaccine that allowed for the flexible time span. A study published in The Lancet in February said that 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 chairman of the German Association of Family Physicians.

German health authorities initially limited its application to younger adults because there wasn’t enough information on how older adults responded. Then they suspended it for several weeks because of reports of cases of blood clots accompanied by low platelet counts, before reintroducing it but only for individuals older than 60.

The uncertainty caused by the back-and-forth meant that many older patients who had the right to a shot of AstraZeneca chose to instead wait several weeks, or go elsewhere to receive BioNTech-Pfizer’s 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, 22.6 million AstraZeneca’s 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.

“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, which offered the AstraZeneca appointments over 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 nod to the country’s tradition of automobiles.

In a letter to the local 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.


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