Germany changes stance and offers AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine to over-65s

U-turn comes as Britain intensifies research into protection against new strains

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Germany will overturn a decision not to offer the AstraZeneca-Oxford Covid-19 vaccine to over-65s, with Chancellor Angela Merkel saying recent studies showed it was effective in older age groups.

A handful of EU countries, including France and Germany, claimed there was limited evidence the shot protected older people.

"The [German] vaccine commission, whose recommendations we are happy to follow, will authorise AstraZeneca for older age groups," Mrs Merkel said.

Germany, which like most EU countries has been criticised for its slow vaccination campaign, has hundreds of thousands of AstraZeneca’s drug in storage, owing partly to public fears over its effectiveness.

Only about 5 per cent of Germany's population have received at least one dose of the shot.

Belgium approved the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine on Wednesday and France will offer it to people aged between 65 and 74 with existing health conditions.

French President Emmanuel Macron described the shot as "quasi-ineffective" in January, but has since softened his views.

Like the UK, Germany decided on a 12-week gap between first and second doses to give more people protection against Covid-19.

Mrs Merkel set out how the country would loosen restrictions, although most will remain in place until March 28. But meeting up to five people from two other households will be permitted from Monday.

After meeting regional leaders, she said Germany was “at the threshold of a new phase of the pandemic” that the country would enter “with justified hope".

Meanwhile, the UK’s medical regulator said it would fast-track vaccines to protect against new strains of the virus, as concerns grow about variants such as those first reported in Brazil and South Africa that might be resistant to current inoculations.

The Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said the plan was based on the process used to protect people against flu every year, eliminating the need for time-consuming trials.

"Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety," said Christian Schneider, chief scientific officer at the agency.

"Should any modifications to authorised Covid-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should help to do just that.”

The European Medicines Agency is looking into how it can speed up the approval process for vaccine adjustment.

“It appears that with continued mutations and new variants emerging, authorised vaccines may need to be adapted, in time to ensure continued protection," it said.

"Initial data indicates that some of these variants may have an impact on the level of protection provided by Covid-19 vaccines against infection and disease.

“Therefore, it is an urgent public health priority to define an expedited regulatory process for the adaptation of vaccines to protect against current or future variants.”