Covid booster jabs possible for all, says German Health Minister

Germany Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) has reiterated calls for vulnerable groups to get a Covid booster vaccination - and it's now possible for everyone to get a top-up jab as long as they discuss it with their doctor first.

Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccine
A doctors' assistant prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Booster jabs are recommended for people who were vaccinated with J&J. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

“We have more than enough vaccine,” Spahn told RBB Inforadio on Friday when pressed to explain why he himself had got a top-up jab on Thursday. 

At present, a booster vaccination is primarily recommended for select groups of people who are considered to be more at risk from the Delta variant over winter, he explained.

This includes people over 70, people who are in need of care, people with pre-existing conditions, and those who work in the healthcare system or with vulnerable people.

It also includes people who have exclusively been vaccinated with the two so-called ‘viral vector’ vaccines: AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson. 

“For everyone else, it’s nonetheless possible,” he said. “Everyone who gets a top-up jab, who discusses that with their doctor, they’re also doing something to ensure that we come through winter safely.” 

People who get additional vaccine protection also have a smaller chance of infecting others with Covid, he added. 

Asked if healthy people who got a third jab after two shorts of an mRNA vaccine like Pfizer BioNTech or Moderna were taking doses from more vulnerable people, Spahn said no.

“We have more than enough vaccine – in fact, we have so much that we’re also able to share it with the rest of the world,” he explained. 

For the majority of people, a gap of at least six months between the last dose of vaccine and a booster jab is recommended.

People who have been vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson, however, can get an additional jab four weeks after their last one. The same applies to people with weak immune systems. 

Jens Spahn gets booster jab
Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) gets a booster jab on October 28th, 2021. Spahn has said top-up jabs are now available for everyone. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Bundesgesundheitsministerium | Jan Pauls

People who don’t fall into a risk group will likely have to go through their GPs in order to book an additional shot if they want one, though it may also be possible at larger vaccination centres.

At the Health Ministers’ Conference in Lindau next week, Spahn said he would put pressure on the states to write to over-60s in particular and invite them to get an additional shot if they hadn’t already.

READ ALSO: Who can get a Covid-19 booster shot in Germany?

‘More careful, more mindful’

Infection rates have been rising rapidly over the past week or so in Germany.

On Friday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people went up almost 10 points to 139. 

Meanwhile, doctors are sounding the alarm about intensive care units filling to capacity.

Asked whether he shared doctors’ concerns about hospitalisations, Spahn said experts had been predicting these increases for a long time. 

“What is important now is that we do not let the number of people in intensive care units in the hospitals increase too much,” he said. “That we are more careful, more mindful of each other again.”

This includes getting a booster jab, he said, as well as introducing special testing concepts in places where there are lots of vulnerable people, such as in nursing homes.

Spahn plans to call on states to make testing of staff in care facilities mandatory again, even for those who are fully vaccinated.

The Health Minister is still in office in a caretaker capacity after the federal elections in September, but it is expected that a new government will be in place by mid-December. 

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Can anyone in Germany get a second Covid booster jab?

With Covid infections likely to rise again in autumn, many are wondering whether it makes sense to secure a fourth jab ahead of time. Here's a look at the official recommendations for a second booster and who is eligible to get one.

Can anyone in Germany get a second Covid booster jab?

Germany is currently in a period of relative calm when it comes to Covid infections. After a major spike in cases earlier in summer, the incidence has dropped dramatically and people continue to enjoy their daily lives with relatively few restrictions.

Nevertheless, with the colder months approaching, experts are predicting a fierce resurgence in case numbers and a difficult winter for the health service. Along with the Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD), the German Standing Vaccines Commission (STIKO) has urged certain risk groups to book a fourth Covid jab. 

READ ALSO: Germany has passed peak of summer Covid wave, says RKI

But with mixed messages coming from the government and scientists in recent weeks, many are still unclear about whether they could be eligible for a fourth shot. Here’s what you need to know. 

What are the official recommendations?

On Friday, STIKO extended its recommendation for a fourth Covid jab to people aged 60 and over. Previously, a second booster was only recommended for over-70s, people older than five who have weakened immune systems, and healthcare workers who are at greater risk of being exposed to the virus.

“STIKO is expanding its recommendation with the primary aim of providing particularly at-risk individuals with even better protection against severe Covid-19 illnesses and Covid-related deaths,” the vaccines panel said in a statement.

For people under the age of 60 who don’t have any immune deficiencies, and those who don’t work in the health or care sectors, there is currently no official recommendation to get a fourth jab. That’s because, according to STIKO, “this group of people would not benefit significantly from an additional vaccine dose”. 

Instead, the vaccines panel recommends three doses of Covid vaccine for individuals over the age of 12 with no pre-existing health conditions. For over-18s, the third jab should be administered after three months, while an interval of at least six months is recommended for 12-17 year olds.

READ ALSO: German vaccines commission recommends fourth Covid jab for over-60s

What do the experts say? 

There has been some disagreement in the medical community about whether an additional booster shot would particularly benefit people who don’t fall into one of the higher risk groups for severe illness. 

In a recent interview with RBB, immunologist Andreas Radbruch said that a second booster jab could help improve immunity for those with imperfect immune systems. 

“But for the vast majority of people, two vaccinations and one infection or three vaccinations are absolutely enough,” he said.

In contrast, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, the chief executive of the World Medical Association, spoke out on Monday in favour of a general recommendation for a second booster jab.

Frank Ulrich Montgomery

Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chair of the World Medical Association, speaks at the German Doctors’ Day in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Guido Kirchner

Welcoming the news that STIKO had expanded its recommendation for a fourth jab to over-60s, Montgomery told RND: “STIKO should additionally recommend that those under 60 years of age, whose last vaccination or infection was at least six months ago, can also receive a second booster vaccination if they wish.”

Earlier this year, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) caused some confusion when he appeared to contradict the advice of STIKO in recommending that young people also get a second booster jab. 

Receiving a fourth vaccination would grant people “a completely different level of safety,” he told Spiegel, adding that people should “get vaccinated of course based on a consultation with their doctor.” 

However, he has since spoken more cautiously and primarily urged over-60s and people who at high risk of severe illness to seek out a fourth jab. 

How can I get the jab if I want it? 

Since there is currently no general recommendation for a fourth Covid shot, people who don’t fall into one of the risk groups named by STIKO may find it slightly more difficult to get a second booster.

According to Montgomery, many hospitals and GPs are unwilling to vaccinate when a positive decision from STIKO is still pending.

“The fact that it is legally possible to be vaccinated is not enough for many,” he said. “STIKO should consider this in its decisions.”

However, people who are keen to get an additional dose of vaccine should nevertheless discuss this option with their doctor, who should be able to advise them further. 

Of course, anyone over 60, health and care workers and those with immune deficiencies can book a jab at a Covid vaccination centre, their doctor’s surgery or at one of the pharmacies that currently offers Covid vaccinations. 

As a general rule, fourth vaccinations should only be administered six months or more after the third jab or most recent Covid infection. They should also be carried out with an mRNA vaccine such as Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna. 

READ ALSO: Masks and no lockdowns: Germany’s new Covid plan from autumn to Easter

Is it worth waiting for the new Omicron vaccines?

Two new adapted mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech are on their way later this year. One of these will be modified to offer protection against Omicron subtype BA.4, and another will offer protection against subtype BA.5.

These two subtypes are currently dominant in Germany.

On Friday, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) said he had ordered enough supplies of the Omicron-adapted vaccines that there would be enough for everyone who wanted one.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD)

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) updates the media on the Covid situation at press conference in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

With the European Medicines Agency (EMA) likely to approve the new vaccines in September, the first doses could be delivered as soon as October.

However, Lauterbach has repeatedly warned people who are at risk of severe courses of Covid not to wait for the Omicron vaccines before getting a fourth jab.

“I strongly advise citizens over 60 to follow the advice of the STIKO and not wait for the new vaccines,” he told RND. 

According to official statistics, just 8.5 percent of the population has received a second booster jab, including 24 percent of over-60s and just 2.4 percent of people aged 18-59.

Further recommendations specific to the Omicron vaccines once more scientific data is available and after they have been approved by the EMA.