German doctors say mixed messaging by chancellor Angela Merkel’s caretaker government is “sabotaging” the country’s Covid-19 booster campaign.
The heated row comes as infection numbers continue to climb, regional restrictions kick in and Germany debates whether to follow Austria with a full lockdown or mandatory Covid-19 vaccines.
Acting federal health minister Jens Spahn wrote to doctors last week informing them his ministry – which has central responsibility for vaccine orders – would be cutting its weekly allocations of Germany’s most popular Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine because demand was exceeding supply.
Instead of booster shots with BioNTech, used in 90 per cent of cases, the ministry suggested doctors try the lesser-used Moderna vaccine. Germany has a stockpile of 16 million Moderna doses set to pass their expiry date early next year.
Last week’s letter prompted a furious reaction from Germany’s main general practitioners’ association (KV), saying scores of confused patients were calling doctors’ practices seeking clarity.
“A vaccination campaign is built on trust and dependability and, once again, both have been shattered, massively, by Jens Spahn,” said the KV in a statement. Noting previous rows over masks and other vaccines, it added that “failure runs like a red thread” through the Spahn ministry’s pandemic record.
Another doctors’ group warned on Sunday that “either this nonsense is reversed and we get the BioNTech doses we ordered or [Spahn] is removed immediately from office”.
On Monday morning it emerged that the BioNTech shortage was due in part because Mr Spahn’s ministry didn’t order enough vaccine for the promised additional booster shots. In response to the shortfall, BioNTech said on Monday it was able to move forward an additional 10 million doses from Berlin’s 2022 order.
On Monday morning, at a hastily-called press conference, Mr Spahn said he “should have communicated more clearly” that “there is enough vaccine” for all. Along with leading German medical organisations, Mr Spahn insisted that the Moderna vaccine was an equally effective alternative to BioNTech. Some studies show it is even more effective when used as a booster for those previously given BioNTech, developed in Germany and co-produced with the US company Pfizer.
The minister apologised for the “additional effort, stress and insecurity” caused in doctors’ practices thanks to his ministry’s interventions and vaccine shortages.
“We should have communicated this clearer but we cannot vaccinate with what isn’t there,” he said.
With new infections continuing to rise, reaching a new high on Monday for the 15th consecutive day, Mr Spahn declined to rule out Germany following Austria’s lead in making Covid-19 vaccines mandatory. “That is not a decision we can take today,” he said to journalists in Berlin.
News that neighbouring Austria plans to make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory from February has been welcomed by many in Germany. Dr Karl Lauterbach, a leading health expert with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), said that “without compulsory vaccinations obviously we won’t achieve the vaccine rate we need to get to”.
Some 68 per cent of Germany’s admissible population has been vaccinated but in some hotposts, such as the eastern state of Saxony, the vaccination rate is below 60 per cent.
That has lead to regional lockdowns in Saxony and neighbouring Bavaria from Monday. Bavarian health minister Klaus Holetschek has called for a “quick debate” on making vaccines mandatory.
“I was always actually an opponent of compulsory vaccination,” said the Bavarian minister on national radio. “Now I’m actually in favour of this general vaccination obligation, personally speaking, as a last resort.”
The issue of making vaccines compulsory is dominating public discussion in Germany. Asked on Monday about how best to boost vaccination, Mr Spahn added: “By the end of the winter everyone in Germany will probably have been vaccinated, recover or died” from Covid-19.