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Can German soldiers defy COVID vaccine rules?

May 2, 2022

A top German court is debating the case of two army officers who have refused a mandatory vaccination against COVID-19. The two have cited their right to "physical integrity" under German law.

Soldier coming out of a vaccination center
The Defense Ministry has said 94% of German soldiers are currently fully immunizedImage: Marijan Murat/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's top administrative court in the eastern city of Leipzig on Monday began deliberations over the mandatory COVID vaccination of Bundeswehr personnel after two officers refused to accept the jab.

Active soldiers and reservists have been obliged to receive vaccinations against COVID-19 since the end of November.

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What do the officers say?

Defending their rejection of the vaccination, the two officers have invoked their right to "physical integrity" under German law.

They are of the view that the COVID-19 vaccine neither prevents the transmission of the disease, nor does it stop a person who has received it from being infected or becoming ill.

They also maintain it is unproven that being vaccinated reduces the chances of severe illness with the disease. 

The two men also reject the use of mRNA vaccines, such as the BioNTech-Pfizer jab often used in Germany, as being under-researched with regard to possible side effects and long-term consequences. They say the vaccination could cause severe damage to the recipient, making any obligation to receive it disproportional and unacceptable.

Their claims as to the negative effects of COVID vaccines have been largely disproved by medical studies, which have shown that the benefits of being vaccinated far outweigh any possible disadvantages.

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What does the Defense Ministry say?

The ministry is of the opinion that the right to physical integrity is overruled in this case by the duty to maintain a good standard of health enshrined in Germany military law.

Under the law, a soldier must accept any measures that serve to prevent or fight contagious diseases or ensure his or her ability to carry out military duties.

The ministry has also rejected arguments questioning the effectiveness of the vaccine, saying that it does hinder transmission of the disease despite not offering complete protection, and also reduces the chances of becoming infected or suffering a severe bout of the disease.

It said it bases this view on current scientific studies and investigations by Germany's public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute.

No disproportionately high risks are connected with receiving the vaccination, the ministry has argued.

It said that if soldiers do refuse to be vaccinated, they are violating their obligations and could face disciplinary measures.

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High immunization rates

Under German law, soldiers are also required to be vaccinated against tetanus and hepatitis.

The Defense Ministry has said 94% of soldiers are currently fully immunized, either through vaccination or having had the disease.

That figure is at 100% for soldiers involved in operations abroad.

It is not certain whether the German Federal Administrative Court will deliver its ruling on Monday. The decision will not be open to appeal when reached.

As well as soldiers, German medical personnel are also required to be vaccinated against COVID. Plans for similar requirements for other civil servants such as police officers have not been implemented; a police trade union withdrew its own request to introduce mandatory vaccinations after receiving complaints from within its ranks. 

In arguably the first major parliamentary defeat for Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government, German lawmakers voted against mandatory vaccinations for all people over the age of 60 in early April. 

tj/msh (dpa, AFP)