Germany eyes voluntary coronavirus vaccine by mid-2021

Germany aims to reach herd immunity through a voluntary coronavirus vaccine expected to be widely available by mid-2021, the health minister said Tuesday.

Germany eyes voluntary coronavirus vaccine by mid-2021
German health minister speaking at a press conference in Berlin on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Speaking to reporters in Berlin, minister Jens Spahn said he wanted to stress there would be no mandatory requirement to get inoculated once a vaccine is ready, “despite what is sometimes said”.

“We need 55 to 65 percent of the population to get vaccinated to reach what is known as herd immunity and I firmly believe we can achieve this voluntarily,” he said.

Scientists around the world are racing to produce a safe and efficient vaccine to halt a pandemic that has killed almost a million people.

As in other countries, German anti-vaccination campaigners and conspiracy theorists have railed any against any potential Covid-19 vaccine, at times taking part in large street protests.

READ ALSO: Protests take place in several cities against corona restrictions

Surveys however suggest the majority of Germans are willing to get vaccinated.

Speaking at the same press conference, Research Minister Anja Karliczek said Germany only expects a vaccine to be available “to wide sections of the population” by the middle of 2021.

The estimate is in line with a recent assessment from the World Health Organization.

US President Donald Trump however has hinted a vaccine could be rolled out before November's elections, while Russia has already approved one despite not completing clinical trials.

Funding boost

Karliczek insisted Germany and the European Union would not be taking “risky shortcuts” in the battle to develop a safe and efficient vaccine.

She said the German government was offering around €750 million in funding to help three domestic firms with their vaccine research and development.

The two most advanced with their vaccine work, Germany's BioNTech, which is teaming up with US giant Pfizer, and CureVac, will receive €375 million and €230 million respectively.

READ ALSO: US secures potential coronavirus vaccine co-developed in Germany

Talks with the third company, IDT Biologika, are in the final stages.

As part of the agreement, the company that ends up developing a working vaccine will reserve 40 million doses for Germany.

Germany has already secured 54 million doses through an EU-wide contract with AstraZeneca, and further contracts are being negotiated.

Once a vaccine has received the necessary regulatory approval, Spahn said he expected the rollout to be a matter of “days or a very few weeks”.

He warned that not everyone would have access to a jab from day one, saying logistical challenges meant priority would have to be given to certain groups like the elderly and those in frontline jobs.

Germany has had more success than neighbouring countries in suppressing the virus, partly thanks to mass testing and rigorous contact tracing.

But numbers have been climbing again in recent weeks, with the country adding 1,407 new cases on Tuesday.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.