An EU agency will approve COVID-19 vaccine by December 23, says German health minister

BERLIN: After days of pressure from the European Union’s medical regulator, the German health minister said on Tuesday (December 15th) that he had received assurances that the European Medical Agency would approve COVID-19 vaccine by December 23rd.

Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin on Tuesday that he had “welcomed” reports from German media that EMA would end its approval process of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine by December 23, instead of at a meeting of the December 29th.

“Our goal is approval before Christmas,” Spahn said. “We want to start vaccinating again this year.”

Asked later by The Associated Press whether he had received direct confirmation that the vaccine would be approved by then, Spahn said he “otherwise I wouldn’t have said that”.

He added, however, “The EU must announce it.”

READ: Pressure grows on EU drug regulator to approve Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

Spahn would not say from whom he received the confirmation, and the EMA could not be contacted immediately for exactly when it would publish its findings on the approval.

The EMA said later on Tuesday that it had advanced the meeting from December 29 to December 21.

Announcing the change, it said that after receiving additional data “an exceptional meeting … is now scheduled for December 21 to end if possible”.

Spahn expressed impatience with the EMA for days, noting that Germany had set up about 440 vaccination centers, activated about 10,000 doctors and medical personnel and was ready to start mass vaccinations immediately.

Some people walk in the old town Christmas market in front of the town hall in Düsseldorf, Germany, on December 14, 2020. (Photo: AP / Martin Meissner)

Italy, where the European coronavirus outbreak erupted in February and which now leads the continent in the COVID-19 death toll, is also pushing for safe, accelerated approval.

“My hope is that the EMA, in accordance with all safety procedures, will be able to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine sooner than expected and that vaccinations can also start in European Union countries as soon as possible,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said in a statement.

READ: Why us again? Italy suffers a disproportionate toll in a second COVID-19 wave

The new vaccine developed by the German BioNTech and the American drug factory Pfizer is already in use in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and other countries. But Germany cannot start vaccinations, as it is still awaiting approval from the EMA, which evaluates drugs and vaccines for the 27 EU countries.

Seeing the vaccine given to thousands of people elsewhere was furious for many Germans.

“It cannot be that a vaccine developed in Germany is approved and vaccinated (here) only in January,” said Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus, a federal MP with the pro-trade Free Democrats.

The German Hospital Association exploded on Tuesday, demanding that the EU shorten its lengthy approval process and grant emergency authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“I wonder if we really need time until December 29 to get approval for vaccination in Europe – Europe needs to try to get emergency authorization sooner,” said Gerald Gass, president of the hospital association to the media group RND. “That way we could still go into nursing homes with mobile equipment before Christmas and vaccinate the residents.”

Viral Outbreak Germany

People with masks pass by a Christmas booth in the city center of Düsseldorf, Germany, on December 14, 2020. (Photo: AP / Martin Meissner)

EMA chief Emer Cooke said Monday that her team is already working “continuously,” but added that the timeline for vaccine approval is constantly being revised, suggesting the date could change.

Part of the problem could be that the EU is aiming to trigger vaccinations in all its nations at once, and Germany could be more prepared than others.

READ: Poor countries are eagerly awaiting vaccines against COVID-19 despite promises

Spahn’s growing anxiety comes as Germany has hit records of new daily infections and viral deaths in recent weeks. Hospitals and medical groups across Germany have also repeatedly warned that they are reaching their limits to care for COVID-19 patients. On Tuesday, 4,670 patients with COVID-19 were treated in German ICUs.

The nation enters a tough blockade on Wednesday with schools and most stores closing at least until Jan. 10 to halt the exponential increase in COVID-19 cases.

Spahn’s ministry says Germany is ready to give 3 to 4 million BioNTech vaccines in January and up to 11 million doses in the first quarter of 2021.

The country will be able to vaccinate up to 60 percent of German citizens by the end of the summer, Spahn said Monday evening through public broadcaster ZDF. The World Health Organization says that about 60 percent to 70 percent of the population must be vaccinated to successfully alleviate the pandemic.

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s central center for disease control, on Tuesday reported 14,432 new confirmed cases and 500 new deaths, the third highest number of daily deaths since the pandemic began. Germany counted more than 22,600 viruses dead in total, which is another one-third of the number of Italy or Britain.

The head of the Institute warned that the cases would continue to grow for some time after Germany is locked up on Wednesday.

“Those older than 80 are more and more effective, and those are people who are seriously ill or dying.” Lothar Wieler warned.

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