Why should anyone pursue knowledge

Politics and science - they don't always have the same goal


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TIME ONLINE: Time and again in the past weeks and months one had the impression that political considerations were at least one of the deciding factors for questions about vaccinations. For example, when shortening the distance between two AstraZeneca cans from twelve to four weeks. How do you see it

Mertens: Shortening the distance is scientifically nonsense. If there are only four weeks between the two vaccinations instead of twelve, the vaccination protection is reduced. At twelve weeks apart, the effectiveness is over 80 percent, with four only well over 50, as data from England show. (The Lancet, Voysey et al., 2021) The decision in favor of the four weeks is because the public pressure is so great - people want to go on vacation.

TIME ONLINE: It was similar with the release of AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson for young people. In Bavaria, younger people also stood in line last week to be vaccinated with the vector vaccines - although they probably have a higher risk of getting one of the very rare side effects and at the same time often a very low risk of a severe Covid course. Stiko has therefore only recommended this vaccine for people over 60.

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Mertens: Yes, it is not the best decision to be vaccinated with AstraZeneca as a young person, which is why Stiko did not recommend it. And to be clear: She still does not recommend it and - in all likelihood - will no longer recommend it.

TIME online: What would be the consequences of many young people being vaccinated with AstraZeneca?

Mertens: We modeled that. If half of all young people were vaccinated with AstraZeneca by the end of the year, we could have around 230 additional cases of thrombosis accompanied by platelet deficiency. That is simply not tolerable in a situation where we have other vaccines.

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TIME ONLINE: Do you think the young people in the queue have understood that there is a difference between the scientific recommendations of the Stiko and the - politically motivated - de-prioritization?

Mertens: I wish we could really get all the information we have to the people in the pandemic. But at the moment it seems to me that it is getting harder and harder to make yourself heard for the scientific reasoning. If they bring scientific arguments, then in case of doubt they are also verbally abused.

TIME ONLINE: There is also a dispute over the question of whether children should be vaccinated. When does Stiko decide on this?

Mertens: First of all, Ema has to be approved. But we are of course in the process of collecting and evaluating all the data for a recommendation. The crucial question should be what benefit children themselves from being vaccinated - after all, it is about medical intervention in their bodies. Other arguments that are now being publicly discussed play a subordinate role at least for our decision, for example whether we want to go on vacation again, open school or protect parents. To protect the adults, you can vaccinate the adults and grandma and grandpa should have been vaccinated long ago anyway. And the problem with the schools can also be dealt with differently.

TIME ONLINE: As far as vaccination intervals or the de-prioritization of vector vaccines for young people: Politicians keep making decisions differently than you probably would like. How much do you pull your hair as Stiko chairman?

Mertens: Sometimes more sometimes less. The Stiko evaluates all available data and then makes a recommendation based on the best available evidence. It is stipulated in the Infection Protection Act that politicians should implement these recommendations. As long as the scientifically based recommendation of the Stiko is in line with the interests of politics, there is no problem. It looks different when the opinions diverge. You have to endure that.

TIME ONLINE: And how do you cope with the current discrepancies between your recommendations and policy decisions?

Mertens: I can take it quite well, even if it gives me a sour pork every now and then, of course.

TIME ONLINE: You have been in office since 2017. Could you have imagined at that time that your work and as a person would have been in such public focus?

Mertens: No not at all. I've gotten a lot of ugly emails in the past few months. I read again and again that I, old man, should finally retire, which is difficult to do with an honorary position like the Stiko chair. The stiko is often accused of not knowing what we want. Some people apparently think: There are a few women and men sitting together over coffee and somehow loosely discussing a topic, forming an opinion and then making a recommendation. This is nonsense, of course. We systematically analyze what evidence is available, we work with modelers and we change our recommendations precisely when there is new data.