German states call for unused AstraZeneca vaccine to be given to younger people

A doctor vaccinates a nurse with AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine at Berlin's former Tegel TXL airport, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Berlin, Germany, February 10, 2021. Kay Nietfeld/Pool via REUTERS

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Several German states called on Sunday for unused AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines to be given to younger people, as worries about side effects and efficacy, as well as a recommendation it be used only for under 65s, have meant low take-up of available doses.

The German health ministry said this week it had administered only 15% of the AstraZeneca shots it has available, confirming concerns that Germans were being selective, slowing vaccination efforts.

Elderly people are first in line to be vaccinated, but Germany has recommended that the AstraZeneca vaccine be given only to people aged 18 to 64. EU regulators have declared it safe for all.

The prime ministers of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria and Saxony told German papers on Sunday that if shots earmarked for older Germans stay unused, the prioritisation scheme should be softened, allowing younger people to get it sooner than originally planned.

"We cannot afford the vaccine sitting around and not being used because some of those entitled reject it", Baden-Wuerttemberg's prime minister Winfried Kretschmann told Welt am Sonntag. Bavaria's Markus Soeder made similar remarks to Bild am Sonntag and Saxony's Michael Kretschmer to Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

Health authorities in some European countries - including Germany - are also facing resistance to the AstraZeneca vaccine after side-effects including fever and muscle pain led some front-line workers to call in sick. The other shots approved in Europe, developed by Pfizer and Moderna, have been linked to similar temporary side-effects.

The German government urged the public on Friday to take the AstraZeneca vaccine while the head of the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, Lothar Wieler, said data from Britain and Israel showed it was "very, very effective".

The recommendation that the vaccine go only to people under 65 came from Germany's expert panel on vaccine use (STIKO). STIKO's head, Thomas Mertens, said on Friday that it would update its recommendation very soon.

"Somehow the whole thing went kind of badly", he told broadcaster ZDF.

(Reporting by Arno Schuetze; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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