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Germany struggles to shift AstraZeneca vaccine doses

* Germany has administered just 60% of delivered AZ doses-RKI data

* Merkel says “not ok” if vaccination appointments going unused

* Scepticism, patchy state rollout, data monitoring play a role

BERLIN, March 25 (Reuters) - Berlin pensioner Gerhard Schaeufele decided he’d prefer to wait 10 days and cross the city for a shot of the BioNTech/Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, rather than accept an AstraZeneca vaccine in two days’ time at his local centre.

“A week ago, maybe I would have taken AstraZeneca,” the 72-year-old retired university arts teacher told Reuters, describing himself as someone who follows his gut feeling.

But he said the recent back-and-forth over the vaccine’s efficacy and safety put him off.

AstraZeneca says its vaccine is safe and effective, citing extensive trial data. Millions of doses have been safely administered around the world and the EU’s medicines watchdog and the World Health Organisation have reaffirmed it safe. Most of the states which briefly halted its use, including Germany, have resumed giving the shot.

However, Schaeufele’s hesitancy towards AstraZeneca’s shot underscores the challenge Berlin faces as it seeks to ramp up its sluggish vaccine rollout while contending with a third wave of the pandemic, driven by more infectious virus variants.

It’s an issue faced by governments across the European Union as they seek to get their vaccine rollouts back on track. A third of Danes say they won’t accept the Anglo-Swedish shot, while some in France remain sceptical.

According to data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) of infectious diseases, around 2.1 million or 60 percent of the doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to arrive in Germany have been used. By comparison 83% of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines have been used.

A survey of Germany’s states, who are responsible for the vaccine rollout, suggests the low take-up is attributable in part to organisational bottlenecks as well as people’s uncertainty over the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, 66, who is facing growing criticism over her handling of the pandemic, has said she would herself accept the AstraZeneca vaccine when her turn came.

She told the Bundestag on Thursday that it was “not ok” that appointments were going unused.

In Berlin, the AstraZeneca shot is available at former airports Tegel and Tempelhof, and appointments were available to those eligible as soon as this coming weekend when Reuters checked on Thursday.

At Berlin’s four other centres, which administer BioNTech and Moderna, no time slots were available within the next month.

BUREAUCRATIC BACKLOGS

In Bremen, the country’s smallest state, 80% of its AstraZeneca doses have been administered with local officials saying they were quick to offer appointments to teachers and daycare staff once the priority list was amended on Feb. 24.

In Saxony by contrast, less than 30% of its AstraZeneca doses have so far been used. The state has not yet made the vaccine available in hospitals although medical staff would be eligible, according to a person working on the rollout.

A spokeswoman for the health ministry in the state of Saxony-Anhalt said the initial recommendation that the AstraZeneca shot only be given to those under 65 had acted as a hindrance, citing “greater organisational effort” to arrange appointments for those in the next priority group.

Meanwhile, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, shots were delayed after 12,200 AZ doses had to be put in “quarantine” for a week due to an error in the cold chain of the delivery company.

One of the biggest hurdles for the rollout has been inconsistent deliveries and supply constraints. But this is set to change with deliveries of around 15 million doses in total of all three approved vaccines in April.

Ruth Waldmann, health spokesperson for the Social Democrats in the Bavarian state parliament, said it was time to “fire up the vaccination turbo” by bringing on board family doctors.

Germany plans to supply doctors with a million vaccines per week from April rising to three million by the end of the month, and hopes this will add more firepower and flexibility to its rollout.

Family doctors could easily inoculate 2.5 million people per week if each practice does just 10 shots per day, according to the national association. (Reporting by Caroline Copley Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber, Thomas Escritt and Christina Amann Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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