Germany backtracks on AZ COVID vaccine age restriction

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Germany has decided that AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine should be approved for use in the over-65s after all, reversing its earlier restriction in that age group. 

The country’s drugs regulator previously limited use of the vaccine to the under-65s only, claiming that the data in the older age group was inadequate, even though the European Commission had approved the shot for all adults aged over 18.

The about turn comes after reports that sticks of the AZD1222 vaccine developed by AZ and the University of Oxford in the UK were being left unused on the shelves of immunisation centres, even as Germany struggled to meet its vaccination targets.

This week Chancellor Angela Merkel said new studies of AZD1222 had reinforced the data in the older age group and supported wider use, a change of heart that was welcomed by Health Minister Jens Spahn who tweeted that this would allow elderly people to be vaccinated more quickly.

The government has also recommended extending the time between doses to 12 weeks, on the strength of data showing that a longer gap appears to improve its efficacy.

France and Belgium – which had also restricted use of the jab – also gave the green light for use in older people earlier this week, although Italy is still holding out. France has said the vaccine can be used in people aged up to 74, rather than the entire over 65s age group.

At last count, Germany had delivered just over 6 million doses of coronavirus vaccine to 5% of its population – mainly the mRNA shots from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna – but had 2.3 million doses unused. Meanwhile France has vaccinated around 4.5%, with some estimates suggesting that around a quarter of the AZ jab remain unused.

While criticism of the slow rollout was first directed at the European Commission and its centralised approval and procurement approach, more recently attention has turned to the German government itself.

In part that is because of a failure to communicate to a sceptical German public that the AZ vaccine is safe and effective, after a German newspaper erroneously claimed it was less than 10% protective in the elderly.

German officials claim many of the unused AZ shots are in fact being kept in reserve for second doses, but a cumbersome appointment booking system is also attracting criticism, according to a Financial Times report.

There are reports of long online waits, no facility to get onto a waiting list, and a complicated user interface that is hard for older people to navigate.

Germany’s government has said that everyone in the country who wants a jab will be offered one by September, but there are fears this could be set back by several weeks unless AZD1222 supplies are used as they come in.