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In Germany, virus cases are falling and vaccinations are increasing

BERLIN – Dr. Peter Weitkamp placed an ad in eBay’s classifieds last week, offering appointments for an AstraZeneca vaccine – “free / as a gift” – for people over 60. Many of his own patients didn’t want this since the federal government had spent months questioning the vaccine.

But within a day, his practice in Kirchlengern, western North Rhine-Westphalia, was inundated with calls from people looking for the 80 to 90 remaining doses, including some offers to drive from outside the state. Another GP received a similar reaction after setting up a drive-through vaccination center in a grocery store parking lot to administer AstraZeneca shots that her own patients rejected.

For the doctors, the answer was proof that many Germans were ready, even eager, to administer doses of AstraZeneca. Days later, the federal government appeared to agree and relax earlier restrictions that restricted the AstraZeneca vaccine to certain age groups due to concerns about rare but dangerous blood clots.

For months, the German vaccination program had been developing at a frustratingly slow pace, and at times it seemed more geared towards preventing people from receiving doses than encouraging them to get the shots.

But now Germany seems to have entered a new, more hopeful phase of recovery. Daily new infection rates have been falling steadily since April 21, and the country’s vaccine numbers have grown rapidly in recent months. On April 28 alone, the country administered more than a million shots. More than 30 percent of the population have now received a first injection.

“We seem to have broken the third wave,” the country’s health minister, Jans Spahn, told reporters on Friday, warning Germans not to get excited too quickly, even if the prospect of easing restrictions was in sight. “Now it’s about keeping it together for the next few weeks.”

In announcing the recent change in government policy regarding AstraZeneca, Mr. Spahn did not make a scientific argument, although anyone under 60 who takes the shot must discuss the risks with a doctor. Instead, he emphasized the need for flexibility and more vaccinations.

At the same time, lawmakers are putting a bill through parliament to lift restrictions on coronavirus – from limiting the number of people who could meet; the required proof of a negative rapid test for shopping; or forced quarantines after traveling abroad – for everyone who is fully vaccinated.

With the prospect of having to spend the upcoming holiday weekend on Ascension Day next week at home, many Germans now have the three-day Whitsun weekend in their sights at the end of the month in order to finally travel again. Domestic holiday destinations in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein are to be opened on May 17th with hygiene regulations and a rapid test program. Bavaria hopes to be a popular travel destination for German tourists alongside Austria.

Given the talk of a vaccination pass to make travel easier within the European Union and the move of the German House of Lords to relieve the fully vaccinated from many restrictions – social distancing and wearing a mask are still required of everyone – many Germans who qualified for an AstraZeneca shot were reluctant to get one. This was partly because the competing two-dose vaccine from BioNTech and Pfizer could be completed in just six weeks, while the recommended waiting time between shots for the AstraZeneca vaccine was 12 weeks.

“We will allow a lot more flexibility,” said Spahn on Wednesday to the public television broadcaster WDR. “A lot of people want their second shot earlier, with a view to the summer, and that’s possible with Astra.”

As part of the changes introduced on Thursday, Mr Spahn said Germany would allow the second dose of AstraZeneca to be administered after just four weeks, citing recommendations for the vaccine that take into account the flexible time span. A study published in The Lancet in February found that the vaccine offers greater than 80 percent protection when the second shot is given after 12 weeks, while it only offers 55 percent protection after less than six weeks.

“The significant damage to the image of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is still unjustified, is also due to the uncertainty caused by the catastrophic communication of the possible side effects by politicians and authorities in the population,” said the chairman of the German, Ulrich Weigeldt Association of General Practitioners.

The German health authorities initially limited their use to younger adults as there was insufficient information on how older adults reacted. Then, because of reports of cases of rare blood clots accompanied by low platelet counts, they put it on hold for several weeks before reintroducing it to people over 60.

The uncertainty created by the back and forth resulted in many elderly patients eligible for admissions from AstraZeneca preferring to wait several weeks or elsewhere to receive the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine.

“Covid vaccines are still such a scarce commodity,” said Weigeldt. “We cannot afford to waste it.”

As early as when Germany made AstraZeneca available to everyone, the UK vaccines authority said that all adults under 40 in that country should be offered alternatives to the company’s vaccine. They cited the same potential risk of rare blood clots with low platelet counts that led the Germans to put limits on the shot.

In total, around 35 million people across the UK have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with 22.6 million receiving the AstraZeneca shot. Last month the UK began reopening retail stores and outdoor restaurants, at a time when Germans were still arguing over the terms of a new lockdown. These included nightly curfews to slow a growing third wave of the virus and a cumbersome vaccination registration system that was fraught with bureaucratic hurdles and overwhelmed hotlines.

“The British all laugh, of course:” Oh, the Germans again, “said Henrike Thalenhorst, who closes her residence in the office of Dr. Weitkamp, ​​who offered the AstraZeneca appointments on eBay.” They think: ‘While you fill out six pieces of paper and waiting for an appointment, we’ll all be vaccinated with Astra and hit the pubs. ‘”

While AstraZeneca’s ties to the UK have become a source of local pride, the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine, developed by a startup based in the western city of Mainz and known to some as “Mercedes-Benz”, is one for Germans similar mood of vaccines. “

In a letter to the Neue Westfälische Zeitung, a man described his decision to stand up against an offer from AstraZeneca as a matter of national pride. “As a 67-year-old German patriot who has not yet been vaccinated,” wrote Lutz Schaal from Bielefeld, “I am waiting for my BioNTech vaccination.”

Christopher F. Schuetze Contribution reporting from Berlin and Megan Specia from London.

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