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Germany OKs AstraZeneca jab as government vows vaccine, testing boost

Germany is to begin vaccinating older people with the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19, after initially refusing to approve the drug for those aged 65 and up, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Thursday.

Berlin, 4 March 2021 (dpa/MIA) – Germany is to begin vaccinating older people with the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19, after initially refusing to approve the drug for those aged 65 and up, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Thursday.

“This is good news for all the elderly people waiting for a vaccination. It means they can get vaccinated sooner,” Spahn said.

Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccination (Stiko) subsequently issued a statement saying it would recommend the AstraZeneca vaccine “for all age groups.”

In late January, the independent panel of experts withheld a recommendation for use of the vaccine in the older age group, in a move that critics say blunted enthusiasm for the jab in Germany.

By Thursday, almost 3.2 million doses of the drug, developed by the Swedish-British firm together with the University of Oxford, will have been delivered to Germany’s 16 states, according to the German Health Ministry.

Data collated by the Robert Koch Institute for disease control showed that only around 631,000 doses have been administered so far, leading to concerns about low uptake and organizational issues as vials pile up in storehouses.

Speeding up vaccinations and rolling out mass testing are key elements of a new plan to ease the country out of lockdown in the coming weeks and months, particularly since cases have begun trending upwards again.

Germany has forced retailers, restaurants and other businesses to close as part of a lockdown that has been incrementally tightened since November.

This was extended in principle until March 28 in a meeting between Merkel and the state premiers on Wednesday.

However, their step-by-step plan could allow for certain aspects of life to return to normal sooner if regional infection rates settle below certain levels.

Schools and hairdressers have already reopened under strict hygiene measures in recent weeks, with further businesses to join them from Monday, such as bookshops and garden centres.

Further easing will be linked to regions’ seven-day incidence rates, a measure of cases registered per 100,000 people during a seven-day period, which will lead to a patchwork of rules across the country.

The seven-day incidence target for lifting measures had been set at 35 in Merkel’s talks with premiers last month – but the rules were loosened on Wednesday as public support for the lockdown wanes and businesses cry for help.

Spahn called for “easing with care towards a new normal,” in comments to the Bundestag parliament earlier Thursday.

He warned that the virus still posed a threat in Germany, “but everything indicates that this will be the last spring in this pandemic.”

The minister said the federal government will fund a free weekly coronavirus test for every citizen starting Monday, a week later than originally planned.

Susanne Ferschl, a leading member of hard-left party Die Linke, slammed the pandemic response, pointing to regional differences and changing standards for reopening.

“This is arbitrary and not a strategy,” she said.

Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus of the pro-business FDP, which has opposed the sweeping closures, called the sluggish pace of the vaccination campaign compared to other countries a “disgrace.”

So far, 5.5 per cent of people in Germany have received a first vaccine dose, according to Health Ministry data.

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