Germany was under pressure to change its Covid vaccination strategy on Sunday after the country's top vaccine regulator acknowledged that advice against giving the AstraZeneca jab to over 65s had been flawed.
The announcement came as a term of German scientists called on the government to follow the UK in delaying second doses after a study showed it could save up to 15,000 lives.
Thomas Mertens, the head of Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccination (Stiko), said on Saturday that the country was likely to change its controversial guidelines against not to give the AstraZeneca vaccine to over 65s, saying errors had been made. Promising “a new, updated recommendation very soon”, Mertens said: “somehow the whole thing went very badly”.
“We had the data that we had and based on this data we made the recommendation. But we never criticized the vaccine. We only criticised the fact that the data situation for the age group over 65 was not good or not sufficient,” he said on Germany’s ZDF news network.
Mr Mertens said the commission believed the AstraZeneca vaccine was “very good” and that their opinion of the vaccine was “now even better with the addition of the new data”.
Sitko's refusal to approve AstraZeneca for over 65s, despite its approval by the European Medicines Agency for anyone over 18, led to a backlash against the vaccine in Germany.
Around three quarters of the country's 1.4 million delivered doses are still sitting in cold storage as a result. It emerged this week that four out of five AstraZeneca vaccine doses delivered to EU countries are yet to be used.
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Markus Söder, the prime minister of Bavaria, on Sunday joined his counterparts in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hamburg and Saxony to demand the doses should be made available immediately.
"Rather than have it lying around, it should be used to vaccinate whoever wants it. No dose should be left over or thrown away. Everyone who is vaccinated protects himself and others," he said in an interview with Bild.
In total, 11 of the 27 EU member states initially declined to recommend the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for the elderly, including Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Denmark, The Netherlands, Sweden, Poland and Austria.
Austria last week however said it would reverse its decision, while France has indicated it will reopen the approval process to consider recommending the vaccine for seniors.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday said he would gladly take the AstraZeneca vaccine, just a few weeks after claiming the vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for over 65s.
Meanwhile, a team of pandemic researchers said delaying the second dose of the BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines beyond the current 28 days would speed up the vaccination process, provide greater protection for the population and result in “up to 10,000 or 15,000 fewer deaths” in Germany.
A study by a team from Berlin’s Humbolt University and the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research concluded delaying the second dose would also prevent vaccine mutations from continuing to gain traction.
Dirk Brockmann, a Berlin-based pandemic researcher, told Germany’s Deutsche Welle news service on Sunday that a change in strategy would boost the country’s lagging vaccination rollout.
“According to that data, there is complete protection against death from Covid in the risk groups after the first dose. That's a huge success,” said Prof Brockmann.
"We are now seeing the third wave, so this change could protect a lot more people in the high-risk groups from death and serious illness," he said.
Germany’s vaccination advisory committee is reportedly considering extending the time between the first and second doses to 60 or even 90 days.
The UK has now administered first vaccines to 20 million people, 37 per cent of its population.
The majority of the doses are AstraZeneca, with doses administered 12 weeks apart.
Studies have found that giving the doses further apart than the original four weeks which was planned provides a stronger immune response, especially in the elderly.
Last week research tracking the population of Scotland found the AstraZeneca vaccine cut hospital admissions by 94 per cent.
Less data is available on the rate at which the vaccine has cut infections and transmission, but last week Public Health England said the trends were in line with those found for the Pfizer jabs, where one dose has cut infections by between 57 and 70 per cent.
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