Germany has already faced a slower start to the vaccination roll-out than anticipated. Now, it seems the situation could deteriorate further, owing to public scepticism surrounding the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, with many German citizens frequently refusing a dose when offered.
According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), 736,800 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccination have been delivered to Germany, yet only around 129,000 have been issued. The disused Berlin-Tegel Airport, now used as a coronavirus vaccination centre, has seen the effects. AstraZeneca is the only vaccine on offer here, and as few as three to five people an hour arrive at the centre in order to be vaccinated, with fewer than 200 attending the 3,800 daily appointments.
A wave of scepticism surrounding Oxford-AstraZeneca has led many to believe that it is less effective than its BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna counterparts. Reasons for this could lie in previous negative coverage in the German media, coupled with the fact that Germany currently advises against its use in over 65s.
Towards the end of January, Germany only approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for those under the age of 65. The RKI cited “insufficient data” on its efficacy for those aged above 65 for its lack of approval, causing some individuals to shun the vaccine's overall effectiveness. Further questioning of the science behind the virus took place when 37 out of 88 employees in a medical clinic needed time off work due to side effects after being injected. Despite this, Medical Director Karl-Dieter Heller told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that he “still recommends the vaccination.”
Many scientific experts have spoken out in an attempt to quash these concerns. Berlin virologist Christian Drosten insisted that AstraZeneca is better than its reputation in his “Coronavirus Update” on his radio podcast on Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR). Meanwhile, in an interview with the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, a Professor of the German Society for Immunology (DGfI) Carsten Watzl said, "to say that the AstraZeneca vaccine would be second class is completely wrong, both scientifically and in terms of its public effect."
However, vaccine scepticism most notably expanded from an original, sole association with COVID-conspiracists and anti-vaxxers to the current situation of widespread AstraZeneca rejection when Handelsblatt ran this controversial article. The German business newspaper cited reports from an allegedly anonymous government source that the vaccine was only 8% effective in over-65s. This was quickly denied by AstraZeneca, who called the allegations “completely incorrect," whilst the University of Oxford said there was “no basis for the claims of very low efficacy."
As a result of this negative coverage, politicians have spoken out in an attempt to restore public opinion. Kordula Schulz-Asche of Die Grünen, Germany's Green party, put civil distrust down to “a really fatal communication," describing the Handelsblatt headline as a “horror story". Speaking to Welt, she also pointed the finger at the German government for “massive communication failures”. Government health minister Jens Spahn also advocated for the vaccine's use, insisting that he would "be vaccinated immediately" when it is his turn. "If a vaccine has been approved, then it is safe and effective", he said. Spahn also expressed disagreement with discussing the vaccine in headlines.
Others have even taken direct action to dispel Germany's AstraZeneca doubts. Dilek Kalayci, SPD politician and state health minister of Berlin, admitted that it may have been a mistake to have allowed people a choice of vaccine. Berlin was the only federal state in Germany to have offered this, but has now abolished this freedom in an effort to level the playing field.
Growing scepticism sadly has knock-on effects for the entire vaccination programme. The Central Institute for Statutory Health Insurance (ZI) calculates that the German government’s target to offer a first dose to every citizen by September will now be delayed by up to two months. If public opinion surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine in Germany does not change, it would come as no surprise if this plan, just like the lockdown, is extended further.