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Children in Germany will soon be able to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, but only if the EU's EMA approves the BioNTech-Pfizer shot for 12 to 15-year-olds.
After meeting with leaders of Germany's 16 states on Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed lowering the age limit for vaccination against COVID. However, the change would depend on an upcoming decision by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
The EU watchdog is expected to approve the jab developed by BioNTech-Pfizer for people between 12 and 15 years of age. If those expectations come true, Germany will start offering vaccination appointments for children starting on June 7.
The news follows other positive signals regarding the pandemic in Germany: the country's COVID-19 infection figures have fallen below the mark of 50 new daily infections per 100,000 people over the course of seven days. That is the lowest infection rate since October — and the development is being put down to an up-tick in vaccinations.
Some 40% of people in Germany have now had at least one jab. Restaurants have reopened outdoor seating areas in most regions, cultural events are cautiously being restarted with hygiene and social distancing requirements in place. Many people in Germany are planning their summer vacations.
On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the vaccination progress with 16 state premiers. Although no vaccine has been approved for use in people younger than 16, the politicians focused on children and schools. This is a point of heated debate, as schools have still not resumed regular classes, and students all over the country are still largely stuck with "online learning." On social media, there is a barrage of criticism alleging that politicians have simply ignored the country's young people.
Health Minister Jens Spahn from Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has gone out of his way to appeal to parents: Earlier this week, Spahnpromised that all youths above the age of 12 would have the chance to register for a vaccine by the end of August.
He did this with an eye toward schools being able to restart for the new school year in September with students in classrooms rather than at home in front of computer screens.
German vaccine manufacturer BioNtech and US pharma giant Pfizer officially requested European Union regulators widen approval of their coronavirus vaccine to include adolescents.
The companies asked for approval for their jab to be extended to children ages 12 to 15 after trials showed the vaccine was safe and effective.
Germany's permanent vaccine commission, known by the acronym StiKo, is the body that decides which groups of the population get vaccinated and when.
Its 18 members are so far hesitant to allow young people to get the jab, arguing that there is not enough information on the effects of a COVID-19 infection on children. Initial findings suggest that the impact is mild, they point out, but there are also indications that there may be long-term and sometimes severe side effects. The German experts have, however, said they see a clear benefit of vaccination for 12- to 15-year-olds who have underlying chronic diseases.
StiKo epidemiologist Rüdiger von Kries told Berlin public broadcaster RBB that the commission is an autonomous body of experts that does not let itself be pushed in any direction by politicians.
"We don't respond to urgent calls by any ministry. We look at scientific facts and base our recommendations on medical pros and cons," he said.
Health Minister Spahn responded with defiance: If need be, young people could be vaccinated without StiKo approval, he told commercial broadcasters RTL and ntv, saying the experts did no more than "give recommendations." Spahn said it was ultimately up to the parents to decide whether their children get vaccinated.
Germany goes to the polls on September 26 with popular Chancellor Angela Merkel not running for reelection after 16 years in office. Opinion polls predict a poor showing for her conservative CDU/CSU bloc.
The economic fallout of the pandemic may be severe, so political pundits suspect many politicians in the current conservative-led government are keen to spread as many positive messages as possible, making promises of vaccines for everyone to ensure a return to a normal life.
Government spokesman Steffen Seibert was at pains to stress that there would be no rash decision making and that there would not be mandatory vaccines for all 12-to-16-year olds and vaccination would not be a prerequisite for returning to school.
StiKo chairman Thomas Mertens told public radio station Deutschlandfunk that whether schools could open or families could go on vacation were not the relevant criteria for the commission's recommendation. The only relevant consideration, he said, was a medical one: What danger does a COVID infection pose to young people, and does this threat merit the medical intervention of a vaccine.
Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chair of the World Medical Association (WMA), came out in support of StiKo's reluctance: "Currently, we do not have enough information on the risks of a COVID vaccine for children to make a clear recommendation," he told Rheinische Post newspaper.
German officials are also struggling to ensure enough vaccines . From June 7, all adults will be eligible for a COVID jab. But there is still not enough vaccine to go around.
Malu Dreyer, premier of the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, deplored the lack of transparency over the distribution of the vaccines to the regions. She wants to make sure that it is distributed equally and fairly according to the size of the states' population.
Germany must also decide how to respond to an EU decision on digital documentation of vaccinations.
European Union lawmakers and member states last week reached an agreement that would allow anyone in the bloc to obtain digital proof of coronavirus vaccination status, COVID test results, or recovery from an infection.
Called "green certificates" by the European Commission, the pass is designed to allow restriction-free travel within the EU ahead of the busy summer tourist season. The travel pass will be a QR code on a smartphone or printed on paper.
By accepting the travel pass, member states agree to drop additional travel restrictions for foreign travelers, such as further testing or quarantine, unless the measures are necessary.
Germany is expected to struggle to introduce the use of the EU travel document. So far, documentation in Germany is still on paper. And data protection issues are traditionally a serious impediment to the introduction of any digital COVID certificate.
Meanwhile, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said the EU's digital vaccine certificate should help galvanize recovery in international travel and tourism ahead of the summer season. Speaking on a panel on the recovery in travel, he confirmed the bloc's target of vaccinating 70% of its adult population by July 14, and predicted that travel and tourism should restart before that date.
This article was translated from German.
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