Germany faces vaccine shortages that will last into April and hamper its efforts to bring the coronavirus under control, the country’s health minister warned on Thursday.
“We have at least ten tough tough weeks ahead of us with the vaccine shortages,” Jens Spahn tweeted in a message to German regional leaders. “We should spend that time working together on the matter. That is what the citizens can expect from us in these difficult times.”
The European Union is facing severe shortages after vaccine companies were forced to cut planned deliveries because of production problems — an issue the manufacturers say was caused by the bloc ordering too late to allow them to ramp up production.
Germany has been caught up in the shortages after Angela Merkel overruled an attempt by Mr Spahn to order sufficient stocks last summer and insisted the country entrust its vaccine orders to the European Commission.
“Making vaccines is very complex, and a lot of work is needed to increase capacity that leads to delays,” Mr Spahn told German radio. “But it has to impact everyone in the same way and not just the EU.”
EU leaders have accused AstraZeneca, the company which makes the Oxford vaccine, of prioritising deliveries to the UK. The company says Britain placed its orders much earlier.
“The way it looks now, Merkel’s promise to offer a vaccination to everyone in Germany by the end of the summer is going to be hard to keep,” Carsten Schneider, a leading MP from Mrs Merkel's coalition partners, the centre-Left Social Democrats (SPD), told German television.
There are growing calls in Germany to force the pharmaceutical companies to license their competitors to manufacture the vaccines — a move Mrs Merkel's government has resisted so far.
The beleaguered Mr Spahn called for a summit of German regional leaders to address the crisis, as he desperately tried to escape political blame. “We need to talk about the situation, the goals, the next steps, so that Europe gets its fair share,” he tweeted.
“And we should invite the pharmaceutical industry, the manufacturers of vaccines in Germany, to expert discussions. So that they explain how complex it is to manufacture. Vaccine production cannot be built up in four weeks. If that succeeds in a few months, it will be very quick. Simply because the quality has to be very good to protect the citizens.”
AstraZeneca has announced a cut in planned deliveries to the EU from around 80m to just 31m by the end of March. Pfizer-BioNTech, the maker of the rival German vaccine, has also announced smaller cuts to deliveries over the coming weeks for the same reason, although it says it plans to return to full capacity by the end of March.
The delays have left European countries facing severe shortages. France has seen its expected quota for the first quarter of 2021 slump from 17.5m doses to just 4.6m. Italy, which was expecting 16m doses by the end of March, will now get only 3.4m.
In Spain, several regions have temporarily abandoned new vaccination programmes for the time being. The country is also facing delivery delays from a third manufacturer, Moderna. Authorities in Madrid, Valencia and Cantabria have stopped giving first jabs until new stocks arrive, and the vaccination timetables are under threat in 10 of Spain’s 17 regions.
“Moderna is delayed, Pfizer sends fewer vaccines and we don’t know anything about AstraZeneca,” said one Catalan heath official.
Despite the delays, France still expects to have completed its vaccination campaign by the end of the summer, though Olivier Véran, the health minister cautioned that depends on "the vaccines being validated and deliveries following suit."
After a very slow start in late December, France has now vaccinated around 1.2 million people, only 1.77 per cent of the population, mainly retirement home occupants and health workers over 50.
The health ministry expects to vaccinate 4.6 million people by the end of February, with 1.55m having received their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna jabs and 1.5 million their first.
The first phase of vaccination in retirement homes is due for completion on February 6, with 450,000 people injected and an acceptancy rate of 75 per cent.
The French rollout is being slowed down by the fact that the health ministry refuses to space out the two Pfizer jabs over more than three to four weeks. That means that very few extra spaces are available for over 75-year-olds in the coming month for a first jab.
Meanwhile Britons could face a ban on entering Germany under new measures to control the spread of virus mutations. The German interior ministry said it is preparing new restrictions for travellers from countries deemed hotspots for the mutations. Countries under consideration are believed include the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Brazil and South Africa.
The new restrictions would have little practical impact, as Germany already bars entry to Britons except for essential work and those resident in the country. German citizens would be unaffected by the new ban.
There is also discussion of extending the restrictions to the Netherlands and Denmark, though it would be harder to enforce as both countries have land borders with Germany, and there are no current plans to close border crossings.