Countries mull delaying second virus jabs

Andreas Rinke
·4-min read

Germany and Denmark are looking into the possibility of delaying administering a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from BioNTech and Pfizer to make scarce supplies go further after a similar move by the UK last week.

In Berlin, the health ministry is seeking the view of an independent vaccination commission on whether to delay a second shot beyond a 42-day maximum now foreseen, according to a one-page document seen by Reuters on Monday.

The update, dated Sunday, follows widespread criticism over the weekend of Health Minister Jens Spahn that Germany has failed to procure enough vaccine and has been too slow to ramp up its inoculation campaign.

Britain's move to delay administering a second dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer shot has been welcomed by a number of German health experts and comes as governments try to provide protection against coronavirus to as many people as possible by giving them one shot as soon as possible and delaying a second.

"In view of the current scarcity of vaccines and the very high numbers of infections and hospitalisations (in Germany), a strategy in which as many people as possible are vaccinated as early as possible is more effective," said Leif-Erik Sander, head of the vaccine research team at Berlin's Charite hospital.

According to the latest daily update from the Robert Koch Institute, Germany has vaccinated about 239,000 people since starting its campaign on December 27 - well short of the 1.3 million doses that were delivered by the end of 2020.

By way of comparison, the UK has administered more than a million COVID-19 vaccines so far, more than the rest of Europe put together, Health Minister Matt Hancock said on Monday.

Danish health authorities are also looking into the possibility of extending the time gap between vaccine shots.

The director of the State Serum Institute, which deals with infectious diseases, said it would closely monitor how the situation develops in the UK.

The health ministry is considering a 3-6 week interval, newspaper Ekstra Bladet reported, citing sources.

As of Monday, a total of 46,975 Danes had received the first Pfizer-BioNTech shot, mostly health workers and the elderly.

While a longer interval between shots has not been tested in the companies' clinical trials, some scientists said it was a sensible plan given the extraordinary circumstances.

Other points in the German health ministry document include recommending that an extra, sixth dose be drawn from vials of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine - a practice the companies say is feasible with the right needle and syringe and has been allowed in several countries.

European Union approval for a vaccine from Moderna, expected this week, should add another 1.5 million doses of supply in the coming weeks, the document added.

In total, Germany, which has about 83 million people, should get 50 million doses of the Moderna shot this year under EU-wide procurement contracts.

Regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine approved last week by the UK, the German Health Ministry said the European Medicines Agency's (EMA) rolling review was proceeding at "high pressure".

"The goal is, as soon as possible, to decide on the way forward and on the scope of approval" for the AstraZeneca vaccine, the document said.

A dialysis patient in the UK was the first person in the world to receive the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine outside a clinical trial on Monday.

Brian Pinker, 82, received the jab at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust in Oxford at 7.30 am on Monday, according to the National Health Service.

Meanwhile, scientists in South Africa say they are urgently testing to see if the vaccines for COVID-19 will be effective against the country's variant virus.

The genomic studies come as UK health minister Matt Hancock and other experts in the country have said they worry that vaccines may not be effective against the South African variant.

"This is the most pressing question facing us right now," said Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert who is working on South Africa's genomic studies of the variant.

"We are urgently doing experiments in the laboratory to test the variant" against the blood of people with antibodies and against the blood of people who have received vaccines, Lessells told the Associated Press on Monday.

The tests, called neutralising assays, will help determine the reliability of vaccines against the variant, he said.

The South African variant, 501.V2, is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and has rapidly become dominant in the country's coastal areas.

It is expected that the variant will quickly become dominant inland in Johannesburg, the country's largest city, and the surrounding Gauteng province, he said.