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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Germany’s Scholz rules out second attempt at vaccine mandate

After an attempt to introduce an over-60s vaccine mandate was rejected in parliament, German chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) has said his government will not bring the issue to a vote again.

Germany's Scholz rules out second attempt at vaccine mandate

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) has rejected the idea of a second attempt to introduce mandatory Covid vaccinations.

“There is no legislative majority in the Bundestag for compulsory vaccination,” he said on Thursday evening after consultations with the leaders of the federal states in Berlin.

Expressing his regret at the lack of support for the move, he said this reality would have to be the “starting point” for any future vaccination drives. 

“I am, of course, disappointed that there was no majority today, I don’t want to hide that at all,” said Scholz. “I am still convinced that it would be right to have compulsory vaccination in Germany. With the Bundestag decision, however, a very clear statement by the legislator had now been made.”

Despite the fact that Covid-19 vaccines have been available in Germany for more than a year, around 24 percent of the population still have no vaccine protection whatsoever.

Of these, around 4-5 percent are too young to get the Covid vaccine, but around 20 percent are either against the idea or still on the fence. 

“We will do everything we can to convince even more citizens of this country to get vaccinated,” Scholz told reporters. “This will require our creativity.”

READ ALSO: Scholz gets stinging defeat in parliament with Covid jab vote

On Thursday, a bill for compulsory vaccination for everyone over the age of 60 was voted down in the Bundestag, dealing a painful blow to its supporters in the traffic-light coalition. 

The bill had been promoted primarily by SPD and Green MPs, including Scholz himself and Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD). A motion from the opposition CDU/CSU parties to introduce a vaccine register and potential target vaccine mandates was also rejected by the house. 

‘Bitter defeat’

Scholz is not alone in ruling out the possibility of reviving the vaccine mandate issue. 

Speaking to Tagesschau in Berlin, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said the failure of the bill had been a “bitter defeat” that made it unlikely that any future bill on the subject would gain enough support to succeed.

“It’s a clear result that has to be lived with,” he said. “I’m sceptical about whether we can still achieve anything through additional talks.”

In a democracy, he said, this had to be respected.

But he explained that the failure of compulsory vaccination is bad news for vulnerable patients, for those who work to treat and care for Covid patients, and for all those who have to live with restrictions. A new wave of infections is likely by autumn at the latest, Lauterbach said.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister to target undecided in new Covid jab campaign