Sooner than expected: It now appears that on December 21, the BioNTech-Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine will be approved in Germany, with vaccinations likely to begin on December 27. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to issue its long-awaited recommendation for approval before Christmas, even if final details are still missing. And that’s a good thing — because every day counts.
The announcement was preceded by frenzied days. While the vaccine has been approved and the vaccination programs launched in the UK, the USA and Canada, Germany was still only looking at various dates for possible approval. This was hard on Germans who justifiably wondered what could be more important for the agency at this time than to work towards rapid approval.
EU approval was the right choice
There were and are good reasons for the fact that Germany backed a joint European approvaland what Health Minister Jens Spahn called a “due process” right from the start. Spahn is right to say that the European spirit, if it still exists in the EU, shows itself precisely in times of crisis, in actions of solidarity. And that going it alone, as the UK did, is out of the question. Obviously also true is what many experts keep saying: That approval in the US, for instance, did not require advance tests and inspections nearly as thorough it does in the EU.
Irksome fear of the people’s reaction
Yet the question of when to vaccinate turned into an annoying debate for which the politicians were partly to blame, too. One got the impression that the government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, feared people would equate the start of vaccinations with the end of the pandemic, and would be more lackadaisical about wearing face masks and keeping their distance. As a result, the vaccine’s possible chances of success were downplayed.
Spahn mentioned yet another consideration that shows the immense strain on the government: If Germany had approved the vaccine — one that was co-developed by a Germany company — on a national level, rather than an EU level, people would surely have complained that they were being used as guinea pigs. That’s how insecure the politicians are when dealing with their citizens. And so the minister did not wait for EMA confirmation for the December 21 approval date. In effect, the health minister of the largest EU country pressured the agency to clarify the remaining details of the approval recommendation before Christmas.
Justifiably, people pin their hopes on the development of the vaccine, which is now also about to be used in Germany and the EU. Its development in less than a year is a great achievement. Setting a date ahead of the holidays comes just in time to avoid a heated debate about why a vaccine that was developed in Germany is already being used in some countries — but not yet at home.
No alternative to lockdown
The debate is likely to remain heated. At the moment, BioNTech-Pfizer cannot supply as many vaccine doses as previously expected, which will hopefully not result in wild new conspiracy theories. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, we will now manage to move ahead quickly, transparently and with a spirit of solidarity. First we vaccinate high-risk groups, then medical staff. We must remain open to imponderabilities that are sure to emerge, such as undesirable side effects. It is still unclear whether people who are vaccinated can still transmit the virus. And, very importantly, the country must remain at a standstill over Christmas and at least until January 10, probably longer. Despite Tuesday’s good news, the pandemic is not over — not by a long shot.