Karl Lauterbach apparently wants to speak plainly again. The Minister of Health is sitting in the television studio with “Spiegel” journalist Markus Feldenkirchen. He taunts his FDP colleague Wolfgang Kubicki – whom he accuses of representing virologically “absurd” positions. He is dissatisfied with the stinginess of Finance Minister Christian Lindner when it comes to financing rapid tests. Lauterbach would also like “more dynamism” in the work of the Standing Vaccination Commission – meaning: The body is too slow for him.
And then Lauterbach makes a recommendation that causes a stir in political Berlin: “If someone wants to enjoy the summer and not take any risks”, he would also recommend the fourth vaccination to younger people, provided the family doctor had no objections, says the Minister of Health. With the fourth vaccination you have a completely different level of security.
The catch with the statement: So far, the Standing Vaccination Committee, Stiko for short, only recommends the fourth vaccination from the age of 70 or in the case of previous illnesses. The EU health authority ECDC and the EU medicines authority EMA set the age limit at least 60 years this week. But as far as the current benefit of the fourth vaccination for young people is concerned, there is no clear opinion among experts.
In any case, Stiko boss Thomas Mertens, counted by Lauterbach, shoots back immediately. Mertens told the “Welt am Sonntag” that he did not know any data that would justify such advice. Studies show that people over the age of 60 who have had a fourth vaccination have a lower mortality rate than older people with only three vaccinations. But many experts say that younger people with three vaccinations are already very well protected against severe courses. How great the benefit of a fourth vaccination would be for them is unclear.
The virologist Martin Stürmer says that a fresh fourth vaccination can initially protect against the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. But that alone is not enough and would probably give people a false sense of security. “In everyday life and especially on vacation, it is important to keep the risk of infection as low as possible by wearing the mask indoors and by avoiding unnecessary and risky contacts,” said Stürmer to the Tagesspiegel. From the point of view of the virologist, however, risk patients, including those over 60, should be vaccinated “promptly”.
Lauterbach’s statements still fit the picture. He is a self-confessed supporter of “Team Caution” in the pandemic – even describes himself as its minister. However, he is often slowed down by his coalition partner FDP, for example with regard to the Infection Protection Act – the liberals always want as few restrictions as possible. And so Lauterbach often only has to issue clear warnings and recommendations, which is not well received by the population everywhere. Lauterbach’s personal approval ratings are anything but rosy in surveys. While his popularity before his appointment as Minister of Health was mainly based on his clear announcements, his role as a reminder no longer pays off politically for him.
After his latest advance, there was prompt resistance – including from the coalition partner FDP. Whether and when to get vaccinated a fourth time should be clarified in a personal doctor-patient conversation, says Andrew Ullmann, health policy spokesman for the FDP: “A specific vaccination recommendation that overrides or anticipates the evidence-based recommendations from medical specialist committees , cannot and must not be the task of politics.”
The FDP health expert Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus explained that she, like Lauterbach, assumes that Stiko will soon recommend the second booster for people under 60. It is important that the independent Stiko “is not put under political pressure,” Aschenberg-Dugnus told the Tagesspiegel. “People have great confidence in the work and the resulting recommendations of the StiKo.”
The opposition uses the opportunity to sharply criticize Lauterbach. “Again, Lauterbach is advancing with private assessments without having asked science and without having included the coalition partners,” says CSU health expert Stephan Pilsinger of the Tagesspiegel. That was a slap in the face for the Stiko, whose professional assessment should be decisive. “Lauterbach unsettles the population and unnecessarily stirs up fear. That is irresponsible for a federal minister.”
The Ministry of Health is now trying to capture Lauterbach’s statement: A spokesman said there could be no general recommendations for a fourth vaccination. This should be discussed with the doctor on a case-by-case basis. The minister made it clear that sufficient vaccine would be made available in the autumn.
What’s next? The Stiko is expected to adjust its recommendation soon and lower the age limit for the fourth vaccination to 60 years, as at EU level. In autumn there should be another reassessment of the situation – especially since vaccines adapted to Omikron are then to come onto the market.
Until then, Lauterbach will have to fight some battles, because the traffic light is currently also working on a new infection protection law. Lauterbach is negotiating this with Justice Minister Marco Buschmann from the FDP. The question is what measures are available to countries in autumn to combat the pandemic. The future of the mask requirement indoors is controversial: should it be expanded again? On the contrary, FDP health expert Ullmann calls for further easing in the “Spiegel”: He personally could imagine converting the mask requirement into a mask recommendation. Karl Lauterbach should be horrified by this idea.