German Health Minister calls for fourth Covid jab for over-60s

Germany's Health Minister Karl Lauterbach wants the European Commission to issue an EU-wide recommendation on extra Covid jabs for the over-60s.

Advertising board for a booster jab
A sign outside a vaccination centre in Hannover advertises booster jabs. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, said he wanted to initiate a discussion on a potential EU-wide recommendation for a fourth dose of vaccination for the over-60s with his colleagues from around Europe. 

“We must not forget that the Covid pandemic is not over in Europe,” he told reporters at the sidelines of the meeting in Brussels. “We have very high case numbers, and unfortunately we also have very high death rates.” 

Currently in Germany, a fourth dose is only officially recommended for people over 70 years old and vulnerable groups who have various risk factors for a severe course of Covid. 

According to the SPD health expert, a fourth jab of Covid vaccine could reduce the number of deaths in the over-60s age group significantly. Compared to people in this age bracket who have only had a third dose of vaccine, the risk of mortality after infection decreases by 80 percent.

This is based on data recorded in Israel, where the booster campaign has been much more widespread.

If the European Commission takes up the idea and puts together a new recommendation in conjunction with the European Medicines Agency (EMA), this could be changed EU-wide to include everyone over the age of 60. 

Germany’s own Standing Vaccine Commission (STIKO) would then be likely to issue their own recommendation.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: Will Germany introduce a vaccine mandate this year?

As with the initial booster jab – the third dose – fourth Covid jabs are generally carried out with one of the two mRNA vaccines, Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna. 

But the take-up of the fourth jab has so far been small, with just 10 percent of people who could theoretically have the extra dose actually getting it. That’s compared to around 59 percent of the population who have had a booster jab and the 76 percent who are fully vaccinated. 

Lauterbach pointed out that while “nowhere is lacking” in vaccine doses, the demand both around Europe and in lower-income countries is falling, meaning much of the current stock is likely to be wasted. 

However, as Germany prepares to discard a number of Covid measures like masks in shops and restaurants, the SPD politician was keen to point out that the pandemic is far from over.

“The situation in Europe, as far as the pandemic is concerned, is worse than people feel,” he said, adding that the Ukraine war was drawing attention away from the ongoing public health situation. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Germany is in a bitter row over Covid measures

Delays on Omicron vaccine

Speaking in Brussels, Lauterbach also revealed that he believed a new Omicron-specific vaccine won’t be available until autumn.

“September could be the target month,” he said. 

The delivery of the specially developed vaccines had been expected early this year, with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla saying in January his company would have one available in March.

Last month, BioNTech founder Ugur Sahin said he expected it to be available in April or May.

Karl Lauterbach holds a press conference

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) holds a press conference in the Ministry of Health, Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa in November last year and rapidly spread globally, is now the dominant variant, accounting for almost all new cases.

It has mutations allowing it to dodge some of the defences generated by current vaccines and from previous infections, and comes in two main sub-lineages: BA.1 and BA.2, with the latter gaining ground.

While Covid vaccines developed for previous strains have shown they largely stave off serious health consequences, they have proved more muted in preventing infections in the first place.

That’s why research teams are aiming to develop one specially designed to block infections with the highly contagious variant. 

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Reader question: Can under-5s get vaccinated against Covid in Germany?

Vaccines for children aged six months to five-years-old are currently being rolled out in the United States. But can very young children also get a Covid jab in Germany?

Reader question: Can under-5s get vaccinated against Covid in Germany?

At the moment, only children aged five and above can get vaccinated against Covid-19 in Germany.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has approved the use of a reduced dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine for children between the ages of five and 12, and this age group are able to get vaccinated by doctors at practices or at dedicated vaccine centres.

Back in May, Germany’s Standing Vaccines Commission (STIKO) issued a general Covid jab recommendation for 5-12 year olds. Previously, they had only recommended the shots to children with pre-existing conditions or vulnerable contacts.

READ ALSO: Germany’s vaccine panel recommends Covid jabs for all children over five

Of course, some parents are keen to get their younger children vaccinated as well – and news from the US, where both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech has recently been approved for children under five, has given them hope that the same will happen in Germany.

So what exactly is going on?

Well, at the moment, there does seem to be some movement in that direction, but things are still up in the air. 

Back in April, Moderna announced that it had submitted a request to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for a variation to the conditional marketing authorisation.

In plain English, this means they want permission to roll out a 25mg dose of their vaccine (as part of a two-dose series) for children aged six months to five years. This is the same dosage that is being used to vaccinate toddlers and babies in the US. 

In response to a question from The Local, Pfizer/BioNTech said it was also planning to file for authorisation for the under-fives vaccine from the EMA in early July. 

Depending on the EMA’s decision, this could pave the way for very young children to get the Covid jab in Germany.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the authorities will be recommending that all parents rush out and vaccinate their young’uns. 

Speaking to the Funke Media Group back in March, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) struck a cautious tone when talking about vaccines for under fives.

“In the studies, the vaccines have not shown the immunisation effect in young children that we had hoped for. But it is precisely in this age group that the effect must be particularly clearly proven,” he said.

“It is therefore unclear at the moment whether there will be a vaccination recommendation for under-fives in Germany.”

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

For its part, the EMA said it was in talks with Pfizer ahead of the submission of its application for approval.

“To date, no application for an extension of indication for the use of Comirnaty (Pfizer/BioNTech) in children under five has been submitted to EMA,” a spokesperson for the EMA told The Local.

“However, EMA is in contact with the company about the possible submission of data and we will communicate on our website should we receive a request for an extension of indication.”

At the time of writing, the German Health Ministry and Robert Koch Institute (RKI) had not responded to a request for comment.