The European Union is to bring forward its meeting to approve the coronavirus vaccine to next week amid public anger in Germany over the delay.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced the move on Tuesday as Angela Merkel’s government faced a growing backlash over its insistence on waiting for EU approval.
A leading German economist warned the delay could cost thousands of lives, and the country’s highest-selling newspaper asked “Why the hell don’t we start vaccinating and saving lives?”
A full week after vaccinations began in the UK, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is still waiting for approval in the country where it was developed, because Mrs Merkel’s government refuses to issue an urgent fast-track approval.
“We are not making an urgent approval, but a proper approval,” Jens Spahn, the German health minister, told a press conference. “We said from the start that we would do it on a European and not a national basis. ‘We’ is stronger than ‘me’.”
The EMA said its human medicines committee will now meet on Monday to complete approval for the vaccine “if possible”. It had previously been expected to meet on December 29. Mr Spahn hailed the meeting as “the first proper approval for the vaccine” and said he was optimistic Germany could begin giving it to the most vulnerable on Boxing Day.
But it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to assuage German public opinion. With the country set to go into full lockdown on Wednesday, public patience is wearing thin.
When Britain became the first Western country to approve the vaccine German politicians dismissed it as a Brexit stunt. But two weeks later the UK has been followed by the US, Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, while Germany is still waiting for a vaccine that was developed by two German scientists.
“It’s just beyond belief,” Bild newspaper wrote in an editorial. “The world is celebrating the Biontech vaccine developed in Germany. Yet Britain, Canada and the USA have started vaccinating — and we are standing and gawping.”
“All in all, the German vaccination nonsense will cost around 15,000 lives,” Prof Paul Welfens, an economist at Wuppertal university, told Bild. He accused Mrs Merkel’s government of a “strangely arrogant” policy in refusing to approve the vaccine weeks after the UK.
The EU is taking so long because the EMA is obliged to go through standard procedures. It is up to individual member states to issue more urgent approvals, but Germany has refused on the grounds it could undermine public confidence in the vaccine.
Prof Welfens also accused Mrs Merkel’s government of risking German lives by not ordering enough vaccine doses and called for the current distribution plan to be ditched in favour of a “turbo” bid to vaccinate the whole country within 90 days.
Under current plans the vaccine will be given in a series of stages, with the elderly and most vulnerable receiving it first. Mr Spahn has said he expects up to 60 per cent of Germans to be vaccinated by the end of next summer, but the least at risk may have to wait until 2022.