Starting immediately, residents of Germany’s most populous state can book a booster after four weeks at any of the state- or district-run vaccination centres, the Siegener Zeitung reported on Tuesday.
According to a health ministry spokesperson, a decree has been sent to each of the state districts to ensure that no-one is sent away from a vaccination centre simply because five months has not yet elapsed since the last vaccination.
The move marks a distinct break with previous guidance, which has generally dictated that people wait five or six months after completing their initial vaccinations before booking a booster jab.
According to the German Standing Vaccines Commission (STIKO), this can be brought forward to four weeks for those with particularly weak immune systems or those who have been given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Until now, however, the majority of people have had to wait several months before they are able to receive their top-up jab.
Speaking to the Siegener Zeitung, the North Rhine-Westphalia health ministry spokesperson explained that the four-week interval was explicitly not a recommendation, but rather a lower limit.
Experts such as the chairman of the German Society for Infectious Diseases, Bernd Salzberger, have recently urged a shortening of the interval between the second and third vaccination.
A faster booster vaccination could influence the spread of both the Delta and Omicron variants, Salzberger told the newspapers of the Funke Mediagruppe on Saturday. “The evidence from Israel shows this very convincingly,” he added.
Boosters required for 2G?
The state’s decision comes amid growing concern about the new Omicron variant, which is believed to be far more infectious than the highly-transmissible Delta variant.
Recent studies by Covid vaccine developers Pfizer and BioNTech suggest that an initial vaccination course of two jabs (or one in the case of Johnson & Johnson) doesn’t offer sufficient protection against breakthrough infections – though it is effective at preventing severe illness.
However, a booster jab appears to offer a much greater level of protection, they said.
According to the study, “a third dose provides a similar level of neutralising antibodies to Omicron as is observed after two doses” for other variants.
The results prompted Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) to suggest that people who have only had their initial course of jabs would no longer be considered fully vaccinated.
“Vaccination is only complete when you have been vaccinated three times,” he told ZDF.
This would have wide-reaching implications for the country’s ‘2G’ policy, under which only fully vaccinated and recovered people are allowed entry to certain public facilities.
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Meanwhile, state health ministers are currently considering whether to exempt people from the testing requirement under ‘2G-plus’ if they have already had a booster jab.
This could incentivise people to go out and get the extra shot, experts believe.