Tactical shift: Europe seeks vaccine ‘overdrive’ to catch up

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“The Anglo-Saxon countries had a much more pragmatic approach,” said Hans-Martin von Gaudecker, professor of economics at the University of Bonn. “What normally makes the German bureaucracy stable and reliable becomes an obstacle in a crisis and costs lives.”

The European Medicines Agency has approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for all age groups, but several EU countries, including Germany, have set stricter age limits.

With its stock of AstraZeneca vaccine doses of over 2 million, Germany wants to qualify more people for the recordings that were previously reserved for only a fraction of the population: people in the group with the highest priority, who are under 65 years of age.

France changed its tactics earlier this week, allowing some people over 65 to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine after initially restricting its use to younger people. Health Minister Olivier Veran said the shot will soon be available to people over 50 with health problems that make them more vulnerable.

France, which is among the highest coronavirus tolls in Europe with more than 87,000 deaths, had used just 25% of the 1.6 million AstraZeneca vaccines it received on Tuesday.

The age restrictions imposed by European nations on AstraZeneca exacerbated problems caused by initial delivery delays and some public reluctance to use the vaccine.

However, data from this week’s UK mass vaccination program showed that both AstraZeneca and the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine were about 60% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 in people over 70 after just a single dose. The analysis published by Public Health England, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, also showed that both vaccines were about 80% effective at preventing hospitalization in people over 80.

Belgium and Italy are also easing their age restrictions on the AstraZeneca vaccine as they face a looming third surge in COVID-19 cases caused by more contagious virus variants.

In Italy, the new government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi this week ousted the COVID-19 emergency tsar and tasked an army general with expertise in logistics and experience in Afghanistan and Kosovo with the country’s vaccination program.

Denmark is now a success story of EU vaccination. The Scandinavian nation, along with tiny Malta, leads the block’s vaccinations and expects all adults to be vaccinated by July – well ahead of the EU’s target of 70% of adults vaccinated by September.

Rather than holding back the cans for the required second shot, the Danish health authorities followed the UK model of using all available vaccines when they were launched – an approach that more EU countries are currently considering.

All 6 million people in Denmark have digital health records linked to a single ID number so that authorities can determine exactly who is eligible for vaccination and contact them directly. The UK authorities also text people directly to take pictures.

“There are historical reasons why we don’t have a central register like in Denmark,” von Gaudecker quoted Germany’s dark history of state oppression under National Socialism and Communism.

“Of course a state can do terrible things with data,” he said. “But he can also potentially do great things with data.”

Better targeting the doses available to those who need them is one way European countries can stay one step ahead of the virus in the coming months as more contagious variants spread.

France and Spain plan to just give a shot of the two-dose vaccines to some people who have recovered from COVID-19, arguing that recent infections serve as partial protection against the virus.

Italy, France and the Czech Republic prioritize vaccination at outbreak hotspots. The Hungarian leader received a Chinese COVID-19 shot over the weekend, and his country and Slovakia are buying Russia’s Sputnik V to complement other EU-supplied vaccines. The Polish president has suggested that his country could follow Hungary’s lead in sourcing Chinese vaccines.

The number of vaccines available in the EU could increase further next week if the European Medicines Agency follows the US lead in approving the single-dose vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. President Joe Biden has stated that the US now expects to have enough coronavirus vaccines for all adults by the end of May – two months earlier than expected.

“If we can’t vaccinate what little we have, we will obviously have an even bigger problem if we get a lot of vaccine,” said Baerbel Bas, a lawmaker for the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany.

According to the Federal Minister of Health, more than 5% of the population have now received a first dose.

“But it is clear we need more speed,” said Jens Spahn, adding that vaccination centers will have more flexibility to decide who to give the shots to.

Ursula Nonnemacher, the supreme health authority in the Brandenburg state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, promised not to keep any valuable vaccine doses in stock when she announced the start of vaccinations in some doctors’ offices on Wednesday.

“Now we’re going to switch to overdrive,” she said.