In various German cities, prosecutors have probed politicians, police officers and others. A mayor accused of deliberately circumventing the official vaccine priority list was suspended last week after having his office searched.
German coalition government lawmakers even proposed fines of up to $30,000. Although those have not gone through, line jumpers can be prosecuted under existing laws — for fraud, embezzlement or accepting undue advantage.
That’s similar to what happened in Canada, where a wealthy couple flew to a rural Yukon in January and took vaccine doses intended for Indigenous elders. They now face fines for not self-quarantining and for violating the terms of their entry into the territory.
The cases under investigation in Germany tend to be less clear-cut abuses.
In one of the biggest, prosecutors in the eastern city of Dresden are looking into whether hundreds of police officers illegally accepted early vaccinations. German health authorities deem police to be at a higher risk for the coronavirus than many other professions, but not all officers would have been eligible when the vaccines were delivered.
A criminal complaint alleges misappropriation and the acceptance of advantages.
Germany’s Red Cross said it offered the vaccinations only to the police when the doses were at risk of expiring and going to waste following a booking system error.
A spokesman for the city’s police force said he could not comment because the inquiry is ongoing.
In a statement, the prosecutor’s office said the investigation “will take some time.”
Critics say German authorities are spending too much time obsessing about the enforcement of priority lists and too little time boosting public support for vaccines. They contend that the rigidity of Germany’s approach to vaccinations has slowed its inoculation campaign.
“What we could learn from the Americans is to do things a bit less bureaucratically, a bit faster and with somewhat more courage,” said Gerd Landsberg, head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities.
Germany has partly vaccinated about 16 percent of its population, compared to the 37 percent of the U.S. population that has received at least one shot. President Biden has pushed states to make all adults eligible by Monday. By contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised to offer a first dose to all adults who want one by Sept. 21 — and many Germans are skeptical that even that timeline can be met.
The disparity reflects Europe’s more meager vaccine supply. But German authorities have also been blamed for being slow to deploy the doses available.
Since mid-January, the country has in any given week held back about 20 percent to 40 percent of its supply. But whereas less than 10 percent of all delivered Pfizer-BioNTech doses were still unused this week, the backlog was particularly pronounced for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
Out of about 5.6 million AstraZeneca doses delivered to Germany, almost one third has not been used, according to Germany’s public health agency. Some cities have reported that up to half of all people with appointments to receive the vaccine did not show up.
Like their counterparts in other European countries, German authorities have offered shifting guidance on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine: initially not authorizing it for older people, because of a lack of efficacy data, before banning it for younger people over concerns about a rare blood clot and exclusively recommending it for older people.
Weakened trust in the AstraZeneca shot has fed into preexisting vaccine skepticism within Germany. Less than 70 percent of Germans say they certainly want to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, which may make it difficult for the country to reach herd immunity. And that could be a bigger problem than those who skipped ahead in the vaccine line.
As German authorities seek to try to persuade as many people as possible to get vaccinated, headlines of people being investigated over getting a shot out of line may send a contradictory message, health policy experts say.
Tobias Kurth, the director of the Charité Institute for Public Health in Berlin, said German discipline helped the country get through the first wave of the virus better than some other countries. But in the vaccine rollout, the downsides have emerged more clearly.
“We have to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible,” Kurth said, citing the risk of vaccine-resistant variants. “If the alternative is to throw the doses away, then it shouldn’t matter who gets them.”
German health authorities maintain that the number of disposed vaccine doses is vanishingly small and that nobody is in favor of wasting doses.
Still, there seems to be emerging recognition that being overly rule-bound can be detrimental in a vaccination campaign.
After holding a summit on vaccine strategy late last month, Merkel said that “the proverbial and also proven German thoroughness” should be “supplemented by more German flexibility.”
The right ratio between thoroughness and flexibility remains the subject of debate, but officials in some cities think they have finally found a solution.
In the western city of Duisburg, officials have implemented an automated system that messages eligible people with an offer for a short-notice appointment if doses are at risk of expiring. Similar to a lottery, the candidates are chosen randomly.
So far, the system has allocated 500 leftover doses, according to the city.
“It was important to me that no vaccine ends up in the trash, but also that nobody receives preferential treatment,” Duisburg Mayor Sören Link said in a statement. “The algorithm behind this software is incorruptible.”