Why have tens of thousands of Germany’s AstraZeneca vaccines not been used?

The German government has previously said that the speed of the country’s vaccination rollout has been hampered by a lack of supply, but new figures show that many states have thousands of AstraZeneca doses that aren’t being used. We try to explain why that is.

Why have tens of thousands of Germany’s AstraZeneca vaccines not been used?
Health workers prepare trays with syringes with the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 at a new vaccination centre at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin on March 8, 2021, amid the novel coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic. Tobias Schwarz/AFP

New data from health research institute Robert Koch Institute (RKI) shows that for 11 of Germany’s 16 states, over half of the AstraZeneca vaccines received have not been administered. 

For example in Saxony, the situation is particularly bad, with only 15.1% of the state’s AstraZeneca supplies having been administered to people. This means that of the 105,600 doses sent to the eastern German state, almost 90,000 are still in the fridge. 

The situation is not much better in other states, with Mecklenburg-Vorpommern having used only 18.7%, Hessen 24.7% and Thuringia 27.8% of the doses delivered.

So, is it true there are thousands of unused doses?

Yes, but it’s not quite as clear cut as all that as the picture varies between states. Certainly, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern say it’s not the case, denying that there are vaccine stocks “lying around”. 

EXPLAINED: How German states are speeding up the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout

They say the RKI data in question includes doses, which have been sent out but not yet received, accounting for the discrepancy. 

Baden-Württemberg have also attributed the low jab numbers to statistics, saying that shots administered in hospitals were only included in the data at a later stage.

It’s a different picture elsewhere. In Schleswig-Holstein, for example, a move to a new appointment-booking software caused delays in giving the shots, while in North Rhine Westphalia, the vaccination pace in hospitals was deliberately slowed. 

This allowed them to maintain staffing levels because some employees needed to take short-term sick leave because of side effects to the jab. 

And in Saxony, it seems that people aren’t taking up all the available appointments. Of the more than 74,000 vaccination appointments available last week, over 14,000 were still available. 

Are the other vaccines affected, too?

AstraZeneca is experiencing the worst of the backlog, but yes other vaccines are affected. 

If you include the other vaccine manufacturers – BioNTech and Moderna – then the data shows that Brandenburg has the largest backlog with only 64.9% of their total supplies having been used. This means that almost 112,000 doses are still sitting in storage.

The vast majority of vaccinations done in Germany have been given to the 80s age group and have used the Pfizer vaccine, which is made by BioNTech.

There must be more to this than statistics – is something else going on?

Yes, there are a few things at play. There are logistical problems, too, such as the way vaccines are administered. 

Currently, jabs are given in special centres, rather than easier-to-access doctors’ surgeries, while the booking system is complicated and varies from state to state. 

Why’s the AstraZeneca vaccine being affected in particular?

Germany has a history of vaccine scepticism and the way the government has handled the authorisation of the AstraZeneca vaccine has only exacerbated this. 

Part of the problem stems from the decision to put an age limit on the use of the Oxford-made vaccine. 

At the end of January, Germany’s vaccination committee STIKO said the jab shouldn’t be used in people over the age of 65 because the trials didn’t have enough data on its use in older age groups. 

But hasn’t the government changed its mind now?

Yes, on March 4th STIKO overturned its earlier decision, saying the AstraZeneca vaccine could now be used in all age groups, citing “robust data” on the vaccine’s efficacy in older age groups in England and Scotland. 

So, what’s the problem?

This U-turn has left people confused. Although the AstraZeneca vaccine trials show it is safe and effective, just like the other available jabs, the public condemnation of the vaccine has substantially damaged public confidence in it.

Many people saw the lack of full approval as a criticism of the vaccine itself, prompting concerns it wasn’t safe.

The situation is said to be gradually improving, but there have been widespread anecdotal reports of people still refusing the AstraZeneca jab because they don’t trust it or see it as a poor relation to the other shots on offer. 

Disdain for the Oxford-produced vaccine was initially echoed in some healthcare practitioners, too, with chairman of the World Medical Association Frank Ulrich Montgomery saying that medical staff should be vaccinated with “better-performing vaccines”.

Public confidence took a further hit when Germany’s vaccines agency the Paul Ehrlich Institute confirmed the Oxford jab caused flu-like side effects more frequently than the other shots. 

In a bid to undo some of the damage, Steffen Seibert, a spokesperson for Angela Merkel, even took to Twitter to state that the AstraZeneca vaccine was both “safe and highly effective”.

What is the government doing about all this?

The German government is facing increased criticism about the slow pace of its vaccination rollout, a far cry from the praise it received for its speedy response to testing at the start of the pandemic.

According to the Robert Koch Institute, Germany has administered a first dose to just 6.2% of the population, with 3% having had two jabs. This is in line with other countries in Europe, but far behind countries like the UK, Israel and the US.

But steps are being taken to improve the situation.

Health minister Jens Spahn has asked for teachers to get priority access to the AstraZeneca vaccine and has requested the army’s help in giving it to state workers like police and soldiers, too. Homeless people are also expected to move up the list.

To address the accessibility issue and ease any bottlenecks, Merkel has said that doctors will be able to carry out vaccinations from their practices by the end of March.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, has said that stock supplies to the EU are due to improve next month, after admitting that the EU did not order enough vaccine doses initially. 

This will help speed up the pace of vaccination in Germany in April, too: at least another 10 million doses are due by 4th April, according to government figures.  

And the pace has already picked up. According to RKI data on Monday, 232,388 doses of all three vaccines were given last Friday, up from 192,748 a week earlier.

Member comments

  1. The reason the vaccine isn’t used is because one cannot get a date for the vaccine! The website is the most ridiculous, cumbersome work of bureaucracy I have ever seen. I have spent 2 hours a day for over a week looking for a vaccine date with no results. Dates for the BioNTech vaccine are everywhere though. Please tell me, if Astra Zeneca is approved for everyone, why is BioNTech reserved for over 80’s? Why do news articles continue blaming people for not wanting Astra Zeneca when the truth is the terrible rollout lies squarely on the difficulty of booking a date? Let’s have some truth here: I want a vaccine and have a paper saying I can get one, but I can’t get Astra Zeneca because of no available dates and I can’t get BioNTech because I’m not old enough. If Germany really wants to vaccinate people they need to make it easier to get whatever vaccine is available.

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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.