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Europe dashes for booster jabs amid surge in Covid cases

As Covid-19 case numbers rose inexorably in Germany last week, lengthy queues of worried residents formed outside improvised vaccine centres. Among those waiting was Marcel, a 24-year-old chemistry student at Berlin’s Technical University, who turned up spontaneously to try to get a third dose.

Standing in a queue of 60 people in an exhibition hall in western Berlin, he said he wanted to help to relieve pressure on the health system. “I have a friend who works in a hospital and tells me what kind of stress he’s under,” he said.

That’s a message an increasing number of health ministries across Europe want citizens to hear loud and clear. Many European states have been slow in rolling out boosters and have focused their campaigns on the elderly and medically vulnerable.

But the menacing scale of the latest wave of infections, and growing concerns about the spread of the new Omicron variant first discovered in southern Africa, means that governments are rushing to accelerate booster campaigns. Eight EU countries, including Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, have recorded more than 100 daily cases for every 100,000 people according to FT analysis of the most recent data — the most on record.

“A new wave is hitting us, and we need to step up vaccination further,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday, insisting the problem was not an inadequate supply of doses, but rather the need to get more shots in people’s arms.

Jens Lundgren, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet, said Europe’s problem was a combination of two factors: a lack of primary vaccination, coupled with insufficient boosting among those who have already been jabbed. “Focus needs to be maintained on both fronts,” he said.

EU agencies are pushing hard. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said last week that boosters should be considered for anyone over 18 years old — with priority for those over 40.

As of January 10, travellers entering the EU will have to either have received a booster dose or have received their second jab no more than nine months ago, according to new commission guidance. The EU will also put into place plans for boosters to be recognised in vaccine certificates.

Capitals have been closely tracking developments in the UK, where the booster effort began in September, as well as Israel, which led the world in starting boosters. The UK’s daily rate of Covid-related fatalities per 100,000 is half the EU average, according to an FT analysis of official data, with the numbers attributed in part to higher immunity levels that have been helped by booster shots.

German health minister Jens Spahn acknowledges the difficulties of ramping up a vaccine distribution system that had been ‘working to a different rhythm’
German health minister Jens Spahn acknowledges the difficulties of expanding a vaccine distribution system that had been ‘working to a different rhythm’ © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In France, the government on Thursday said it would make booster jabs available to all adults, five months after their second dose. In Italy, boosters will be given five months from the second dose, instead of six. This will allow most people to receive the additional dose in December ahead of the cold season.

But the picture remains disjointed. Spain is sticking with a policy of focusing on booster shots for over-60s. Officials defend the approach, pointing to much lower Covid case rates than Germany, Austria or the Netherlands.

Divergent approaches have also been evident in Austria and its non-EU neighbour Switzerland. In Austria, where surging cases owing to a high proportion of totally unvaccinated adults forced the country into a fresh lockdown, about 1.3m boosters have been administered in the population of nearly 9m.

Chart showing that countries face a race to roll out boosters ahead of a winter wave

The recent surge in the number of Austrians attending vaccination centres — triggered by the government’s increasingly restrictive measures against the unvaccinated — has been largely people taking a third shot.

Switzerland, which has an almost identical proportion of unvaccinated people as Austria but has yet to experience an equivalent surge in infections, is at the opposite end of the European spectrum.

For weeks Bern has insisted that booster shots were largely unnecessary for most Swiss. Indeed, while other countries are considering shortening the validity period of vaccine certificates, Switzerland has said it plans to go the other way: it wants full vaccination status to last 18 months after the administration of a second dose, up from 12 months.

In Germany, officials want to offer the booster jab to at least 27m people by the end of the year. Jens Spahn, health minister, said on Friday 6.5m doses of the Moderna booster would be delivered to the regions on Monday and Tuesday alone: in the space of 10 days, he said, a total of 18m doses will have been sent out.

But he admitted the sudden increase could prove a logistical challenge. “In the space of 10-12 days we’re rearranging a system that was working to a different rhythm over the summer, in terms of orders,” Spahn said. In the summer, doctors’ practices and vaccination centres were ordering just 100,000 doses every seven days. “Now we’re sending out 10m doses a week. So all the logistical mechanisms will take a while to get up and running.”

Even if the country’s vaccination effort gains momentum, it seems unlikely to prevent a brutal winter. In Germany, the fourth wave is breaking records: on Friday, authorities reported 76,414 new infections, the highest daily toll since the pandemic began.

Katja, a 44-year-old sociologist who was among those queueing in Berlin, said she feared the dash for booster shots had come too late. “This . . . won’t help us now — it’s only of any use for the fifth wave,” she said. “It’s a pity that so many people are only deciding to get the jab now.”

By Sam Fleming in Brussels, Silke Richter and Guy Chazan in Berlin, Sam Jones in Zurich, Daniel Dombey in Madrid and Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli in Milan


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