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COVID-19 VACCINES

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.

Nurse prepares dose of Pfizer Covid vaccine
A nurse at Freising Vaccination Centre prepares a dose of Covid vaccine. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

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. 

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COVID-19 VACCINES

Where – and how – people can get the new Omicron vaccine in Germany

Three German states have started rolling out new Covid vaccines that are specially adapted to the Omicron variant. Here's who's eligible to get a jab and how to go about it.

Where - and how - people can get the new Omicron vaccine in Germany

What are the Omicron vaccines and how are they different?

In the latest phase of the Covid pandemic, the Omicron variant has been by far the most dominant variant worldwide. Though Omicron is believed to cause milder courses of illness than preceding variants like Delta, it’s known for being highly transmissible and adept at evading the body’s immune responses. 

In September, three Omicron vaccines received EU-wide approval: two vaccines from BioNTech and Moderna adapted to the BA.1 sub-variant, and another Omicron booster from BioNTech to protect against the dominant BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants.

Like their previous Covid vaccines, the latest from BioNTech and Moderna are mRNA vaccines, a recently developed vaccine type that teaches our bodies to produce an immune response when exposed a molecule known as a messenger RNA. The difference is that these vaccines are what’s known as “bivalent”, meaning they contain both a component of the original strain of Covid alongside a component of the BA.1, BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subtypes respectively.

READ ALSO: EU approves new dual-strain Covid vaccines in time for autumn booster campaigns

That means they’re designed to both offer protection against Covid caused by previous variants as well as the new Omicron subtypes. 

As with other Covid vaccines, the Omicron vaccines are only believed to offer greater protection from infection for a short time after getting the jab. However, studies suggest that they continue to offer good protection against severe courses of illness. 

Where are the jabs being rolled out in Germany?

So far, only a handful of northern German states are offering the new BA.4 and BA.5 vaccine, though GPs have been able to order doses of Moderna’s BA.1 vaccine for a few weeks now.

One of the first states offering the latest Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is Berlin, where both doctors’ practices and the Ring Center Vaccination Centre in Friedrichshain have been providing Omicron vaccinations since Tuesday.

A list of clinics with doses of the specially adapted vaccines can be found here (in German). Alternatively, people can head to the vaccination clinic at the Ring Center between 9am and 7:30pm daily, with or without an appointment. 

In Lower Saxony, GPs are currently able to obtain up to 240 doses of the new BA.4/BA.5 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech. Vaccination centres such as the Impfzentrum am Landtag in Hannover are also offering the new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

Around 145 mobile vaccination teams are also expected to receive doses of the new vaccine over the course of the week, meaning people who aren’t able to get a jab at their doctors’ surgery or vaccination centre yet can look out for pop-up clinics in places like shopping malls and on the high street.

In Bremen, the latest BA.4/BA.5 adapted vaccine from Pfizer has been used as the standard booster shot in a number of vaccination centres since Thursday. People who are interested in the Omicron vaccine can get it at the vaccination centre Am Brill, in the vaccination centres in Bremen-Nord, Bremen-Ost and at the centre in Bremerhaven. Mobile vaccination teams have also received doses of the new vaccine.

Due to the current high level of demand, people are being advised to book an appointment ahead of time at www.impfzentrum.bremen.de. 

Doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Omicron vaccine are expected to be rolled out in other German states in the coming weeks. 

Are the new vaccines recommended for everyone?

On September 20th, Germany’s Standing Vaccines Commission (STIKO) updated its guidance to recommend that the latest Omicron vaccines are used when doctors are giving out booster jabs. 

That means that anyone who hasn’t had a third dose of Covid vaccine should soon be able to get an Omicron booster as standard. 

However, STIKO currently only recommends second boosters (or fourth jabs) for certain groups who are at risk of severe courses of Covid: people over the age of 60, nursing home residents, staff at care homes and hospitals and people with existing immune system deficiencies. 

For this group, the fourth dose should only be administered more than six months after the third dose, according to STIKO. This can be reduced to four months in exception circumstances.

People who don’t fall into any of these categories may still be able to get a dose of one of the newest Omicron vaccines after a consultation with their doctor. 

READ ALSO: Can anyone in Germany get a second Covid booster jab?

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