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Winfried Stöcker is a German doctor. After a career developing immunization technologies, he sells Euroinmun to to Perkin Elmer, a US megacorp, for $1.3B; his own majority stake would be worth $600M, so after taxes a German magazine estimated his net worth at circa $300M. After selling the company, he makes a variety of investments, like buying a nearby airport, and continues working on his own, smaller lab, Labor Stöcker. He also donates to the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), a German far right party, and positions himself as being against more immigration.

Come COVID, the guy realizes that he has the relevant expertise, and in March 2020 develops a vaccine in his personal lab. He tests this vaccine on himself, and later on family and employees.

After some experiments, he becomes sure of the vaccine's efficacy and harmlessness, as it uses the same mechanisms as e.g., Hepatitis vaccines. He decides that, in times of urgency, double blind trials would take too long, and organizes a vaccine drive on his airport. But the Paul Ehrlich Institute and the Landesamt für soziale Dienste sue him, and police interrupt the vaccine drive.

After my resounding success with the first five immunizations (within my own family), I applied for approval for a corresponding study in September 2020 (Wednesday, 2 September 2020, 18:52) with the head of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Klaus Cichutek. I tried to make it clear to him that within six months I could have immunized all of Germany safely and efficiently against Covid-19. And yet, instead of eliciting enthusiasm from this important senior civil servant, I aroused his displeasure, apparently because he felt overlooked. Or perhaps there were other interests involved. And so, he had me prosecuted (the proceedings were closed)...

I'm not quite clear on the finer legal points, but although the vaccination drive at his airport seems to have been somehow illegal, Stöcker finds another legal interpretation such that individual doctors can order two vaccine components, an "antigen" and an "adjuvant" and join them together. Separate, they aren't a vaccine, and so its distribution isn't prohibited, per Stöcker's interpretation of the Arzneimittelgesetz.

The story then continues, with Stöcker becoming convinced that his vaccine is superior to more recent mRNA vaccines, and winning some and losing other legal cases. Recently, he boasted of reaching 100,000 vaccinations. But he also received a €250K fine for the vaccination drive in his airport. Cichutek, the bureaucrat, received a Federal Order of Merit, but is no longer the chief of the Paul Ehrlich Institute.

Overall, sources defending Stöcker's point of view are more numerous and accessible than sources presenting the opposite perspective. Still, here is a blog post outlining the lack of information about quality assurance processes, and other problems with the potential vaccine.

Ultimately, it could be the case that the Lübeck vaccine was inferior, and that legal censure was indeed justified. However, my impression is that, on the balance of probabilities, that's not the case. Particularly on the early days of the pandemic, scaling a cheap method seems like it would have been much better than subjecting the population to the also uncertain effects of more infections. And as time goes on, having had different vaccines also seems like it would have been more robust. Still, there are many technical details that I don't understand.

With this in mind, what are some possible lessons? One clear one seems that Stöcker's support of the AfD generated general antipathy, and reduced his freedom for action. It could have been the deciding factor in having hostile interactions with the opaque bureaucracy that was in charge of regulating vaccines. And on that topic, it probably seems like a better move to flatter and appease the bureaucrats in charge of permissions than to antagonize them.

But at the same time, Germany's didn't have the state capacity to deal with the pandemic with nuance and sophistication, and Stöcker ended up bypassing bureaucrats rather than working through the slow official process. That official process involved many months of multiple rounds of human trials and double blind experiments. But at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, there was also value to acting sooner. The argument which rolls off my tongue is that in a falling plane, one shouldn't require a randomized trial before putting on a parachute. Similarly, society decided to take refuge on slow, journal-style scientific trials. Stöcker's approach of reasoning from general principles, and concluding that his vaccine had extremely low risk because its components were the same as those of vaccines already in circulation, seems superior. But society couldn't integrate that knowledge, and so suddenly went from prohibiting any vaccine to mandating a few, rather than allowing individuals to decide, and allowing a more robust distribution of risk.

Stöcker himself seems like a unique individual. He had technical expertise, but also courage, and funds to act on his conviction, as well as a private lab. On the other hand, he no longer controlled Euroinmun, and it seems possible that with him at the helm of the behemoth, he could have achieved better results. At 77, Stöcker is also old. In a possible H5N1 pandemic over the coming decades, he might not have the stamina to lead a similar effort, or even be alive. One good move here on his part might be to ensure that his successor will be similarly courageous.

To me, the story shapes my intuition about how to respond in crisis, by showing how states are important yet fallible, and they can be bypassed.

Sources and further reading

Wikipedia, 2024 [German], Winfried Stöcker, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winfried_St%C3%B6cker

Labor Stöcker, 2024 [German], https://www.labor-stoecker.com/

Winfried Stöcker Blog, 2024 [German], https://www.winfried-stoecker.com/blog)

Winfried Stöcker Blog, 2024 [English], https://www.winfried-stoecker.com/blog_en?lang=en

Winfried Stöcker, 2024, Die lübecker gen-freie Impfung gegen covid-19 ist rechtlich nicht zu beanstanden! Aktueller stand und Zusammenfassung, https://www.winfried-stoecker.com/blog/die-luebecker-gen-freie-impfung-gegen-covid-19-ist-rechtlich-nicht-zu-beanstanden-aktueller-stand-und-zusammenfassung

Winfried Stöcker, 2022, „Lubecavax“: The Individual Anti-Corona Vaccine From Lübeck, Version 2022-05-09, https://www.winfried-stoecker.com/blog_en/lubecavax-update-on-the-individual-anti-corona-vaccine-from-luebeck?lang=en

Winfried Stöcker, 2022, The Family Doctor, Who Legally Vaccinates Against Corona Virus: Ordering Information, https://www.winfried-stoecker.com/blog_en/the-family-doctor-who-legally-vaccinates-against-corona-virus-ordering-information?lang=en

Winfried Stöcker, 2021, Lübeck-Impfung gegen Corona, Zusammenfassung, https://www.winfried-stoecker.de/blog/luebeck-impfung-gegen-corona-zusammenfassung

Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), 2024, Euroimmun-Gründer Stöcker: 250.000 Euro Strafe für illegale Impfung, https://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/schleswig-holstein/Euroimmun-Gruender-Stoecker-250000-Euro-Strafe-fuer-illegale-Impfung,stoecker146.html

Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), 2024, Illegale Corona-Impfungen: Viertel Million Euro Geldstrafe für Professor Stöcker aus Oberlausitz, https://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/sachsen/bautzen/goerlitz-weisswasser-zittau/urteil-prozess-corona-oberlausitz-impfstoff-stoecker-100.html

Petra Falb, 2021, Der „selbstgebastelte Lübecker Impfstoff zur Pulverisierung der Pandemie“ – ein Netzfund, https://verdareno.wordpress.com/2021/03/06/der-selbstgebastelte-lubecker-impfstoff-zur-pulverisierung-der-pandemie-ein-netzfund/

Deutche Welle (DW), 2021, German coronavirus vaccine inventor investigated, https://www.dw.com/en/german-coronavirus-vaccine-inventor-being-investigated/a-56828943

DW, 2021, Germany: Dozens opt for illegal mystery COVID jab, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-dozens-take-illegal-mystery-covid-vaccine-before-police-shut-it-down/a-59961203

Bild, 2021, Polizei stoppt illegale Impfaktion an Flughafen, https://www.bild.de/regional/hamburg/hamburg-aktuell/luebeck-illegale-impfaktion-am-flughafen-gestoppt-78375894.bild.html#fromWall

Spiegel, 2021, AfD-Großspender spritzt nicht zugelassenen Impfstoff, https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/afd-grossspender-spritzt-nicht-zugelassenen-impfstoff-a-b33f5bdf-6c9f-4750-9188-f923486ae937

Südwestrundfunk (SWR), 2021, Kein Held im Kampf gegen Covid-19: Winfried Stöcker und das Antigen, https://www.swr.de/wissen/winfried-stoecker-antigen-impfstoff-100.html

Forbes, 2022, German Doctor Who Boasted Of Giving 20,000 Homemade Covid Vaccines Under Investigation, https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2021/11/30/german-doctor-who-boasted-of-giving-20000-homemade-covid-vaccines-under-investigation/

Vice, 2021, Hundreds of People Queued Up to Be Injected With an Illegal ‘Homemade’ Vaccine, https://www.vice.com/en/article/dyppyy/hundreds-of-people-queue-lubeck-airport-to-receive-unauthorised-winfried-stocker-vaccine

The Independent, 2021, Investigation launched after German doctor administers 20,000 home-made Covid ‘vaccines’, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/germany-doctor-home-made-vaccines-b1966861.html

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This argument ignores that ‘serious’ COVID vaccine candidates were available and beginning human trials in March 2020 (some of which became the vaccines you and I probably have in our systems). The counterfactual world still never develops this vaccine; one in which governments were willing to take and push more risks would have just hastened the existing trials rather than encouraging new people to jump into the game.

Even so, given the rich and voluminous history of people that have used ‘vaccines’ to sterilise/kill/deceive minority populations, there’s just no way to trust a random savant who expressly dislikes immigrants to inject anything into you (especially if you’re not in his ingroup). So I also think this story misunderstands the causes for vaccine hesitancy & why a government would prefer—no, require—a vaccine to go through established, non-partisan, accountable organisations & multiple rounds of safety trials.

So I also think this story misunderstands the causes for vaccine hesitancy & why a government would prefer—no, require—a vaccine to go through established, non-partisan, accountable organisations & multiple rounds of safety trials.

This seems clearly false to me. Yes, clinical trials should help reduce vaccine hesitancy, but here Nuno is describing a situation where people already wanted the vaccine. Some people being hesitant doesn't justify using the police to stop people from taking the vaccine who were not hesitant, and who actively wanted to take the vaccine before the trials.

More broadly I think this vaccine hesitancy narrative seems quite harmful. During the pandemic intellectuals spent a lot of time re-iterating how reasonable it was for people to be skeptical of vaccines, despite the fact that this hesitancy was not reasonable, in a way that overall seemed like it caused an increase in vaccine hesitancy. 

Feels like we’re talking past each other—I was explaining why a government might want to behave this way because I felt like it was missing from the discussion. Specifically, I think at the very least that reasonable people can disagree on whether a government with the goal of minimising suffering would paradoxically take longer to develop & test a vaccine (and also I wanted to suggest that the evidence is consistent with the German government having this in mind when shutting it down, rather than, say, the desire to establish their authority for its own sake).

I didn’t pass comment on whether it’s morally justified; that depends on your conception of personal liberty (which we clearly disagree on, but I doubt I’m gonna persuade you here).

The counterfactual world still never develops this vaccine...

This is a good point. I think the counterfactual world I was thinking of was one in which the world is as it was, but this vaccine proposal/Stöcker acts as an exogenous shock and makes some part of the German population take a vaccine earlier. But you're right that there is also a counterfactual where this exogenous shock isn´t needed at all.

You touch on a few points on your second paragraph; to respond to a few:

  1. Impossibility of trust. Presumably this affects different groups differently, and his political inclination might have made people sympathetic to right-wing conspiracy theories more likely to take his particular vaccine, where in actuality they instead where one of the most vaccine-hesitant groups. This seems fine to me.
  • Differential impact on immigrants: Specifically, having an intervention which differentially helps nonimmigrants seems fine by me. It's particularly salient to me here that a) immigrants wouldn't be harmed by someone else taking this vaccine, b) in fact they might be helped if it reduces the spread. You can also make things clearer by pairing this with a second intervention to make vaccines more appealing to immigrants in particular, but I don't think this is necessary to make it a Pareto improvement.
  1. Origins of requiring control and rigor on vaccines. I agree that past disasters are a reason to impose controls and rigor on vaccine development.
  2. Wisdom of requiring long randomized trials before allowing people to take vaccine candidates. I disagree that past disasters were a strong enough reason in the face of a disease of uncertain long-term effects and a professor of immunology who created Euroinmun offering an alternative.

I don't think that it's the possibility that Stöcker might have only allowed people of certain immigration status to take it or the possibility of differential impact on people that like or dislike his politics that huw was drawing attention to.[1] Rather it's the point that medically qualified people with some interesting views have conducted some incredibly ugly experiments in the past, particularly in Germany, which is one of the reasons why you don't get to run unlicensed medical experiments on the general public just because you're a doctor.

From the limited coverage I've seen haven't seen any reason to believe that the decision to try to stop Stöcker to offer a vaccination claimed to be a COVID cure whilst its efficacy was essentially untested had anything to do with his politics (and if it did, I think the direction of causality is more individual becomes increasingly politically radical => individual being less willing to cooperate with bureaucrats than the other way round). I don't think there's been any serious suggestion that he actually intended to harm people, con people or exclude migrants from receiving the vaccine. But improperly prepared or ineffective vaccines delivered in good faith can potentially cause a lot of harm too.[2]

It may be the case that German bureaucracy is particularly inflexible (it does have that reputation!) [3]but there is a happy medium between considering potential positive impact of shortening standard approval processes[4] and not letting someone bypass regulations to inject people with a solution claimed to be a pandemic cure because they have relevant qualifications and claim to have validated it's safe and works on five people. 

Yes, the COVID pandemic was an exceptional circumstance, but even or perhaps especially with COVID there are plenty of plausible circumstances where skipping the approval process results in more deaths than approval delays, including circumstances where the substance is harmless but ineffective but leads to behavioural change due to false beliefs about immunity.

Ultimately Stöcker is extremely well qualified, but so are a non-zero number of the quack cure promoters (for the record, I've also read a credible, critical source suggest his vaccine is plausibly effective, fairly unlikely to be harmful and not dissimilar to the approved Novavax COVID vaccine in approach so it's probably unfair to put him in the "quack" bracket. But I think it's fair to say that if his essentially untested approach to preventing COVID symptoms did actually work in the general population, it's the exception amongst untested "COVID cures"). And the RCTing a parachute analogy isn't appropriate here, because the "cure" plausibly leads to more deaths than the problem. So even the most streamlined drug approval process isn't going to look like letting doctors say or do what they want in a pandemic if they have a vaguely plausible method and let natural selection sort out whether they're right.

 

  1. ^

    afaik Stöcker made no attempt to qualify who did and didn't receive his vaccine and no matter how strongly he might feel about the topic of immigration, I'm sure he's aware that vaccinating immigrants benefits German citizens too...

  2. ^

    If you Google "Lubeck vaccine" you'll see fewer references to Stöcker and more to a grisly story from many years earlier about how a contaminated batch of the otherwise notably safe and effective BCG immunization killed over a quarter of babies injected with it. 

  3. ^

    It also has one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical industries, so the problem isn't insurmountable...

  4. ^

    Something which itself wasn't uncontroversial, both amongst actual professionals and politically motivated promoters of vaccine hesitancy.

I agree that doctos with interesting views have done experiments without the consent of patients in the past.

I agree that, with low enough state capacity, if you can't differentiate between Stöcker and a crank, you might want to ban all of them. However, I could also see the case for a) not banning anything, and letting the population learn to differentiate cranks vs non cranks over a few generations, or b) developing more state capacity so that you can in fact differentiate between these.

I'm not sure whether I agree on the direction of causality. Opaque bureaucratic decision => politics takes a role also makes sense to me.

I think it's very unlikely that his actual vaccine was worse than the disease, and so the RCT-ing a parachute analogy is valid.

I also think that in saying "not letting someone bypass regulations to inject people with a solution claimed to be a pandemic cure because they have relevant qualifications and claim to have validated it's safe and works on five people" you're skipping over the part where you can have a mechanistic understanding of why and how vaccines work.

Basically, agree that if you squint, this looks like other things that could be bad, and that if the state can only squint, it might want to apply violence to prevent it. But that doesn't seem like the only alternative to me.

Interesting story. 

Similarly, society decided to take refuge on slow, journal-style scientific trials

Coming from outside the field of biosecurity/pandemic response, this is something that surprised me about the international response to the pandemic. Sure, in normal times the multi-month human trials and double-blind experiments seem justified, but in times of emergency, one would think that governments would encourage people like Stöcker to develop vaccinations, rather than hinder them. Surely the downside risks from rapidly developing and testing a large number of vaccines can't outweigh the loss of life that comes whilst we wait for the 'proper method' to run it's course? 

I agree; I could imagine the downside risks being larger, but this would surprise me.

My favorite lesson here for EA is “don’t sell critical assets”.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/z8H7q3fgY4gCqnpTJ/jeff-bezos-wealth

Bill Gates selling Microsoft stock at the advice of Buffett, Stöcker selling Euroinmun, SBF selling customer assets & a chunk of FTX to Binance.

Executive summary: German doctor Winfried Stöcker developed a COVID-19 vaccine in his personal lab in 2020, but faced legal challenges when trying to distribute it, highlighting tensions between rapid crisis response and regulatory processes.

Key points:

  1. Stöcker developed and tested a COVID vaccine in early 2020, believing it to be safe and effective based on similarities to existing vaccines.
  2. German authorities sued Stöcker and stopped his vaccination efforts, citing regulatory concerns.
  3. Stöcker found legal workarounds to continue distributing vaccine components, claiming to have reached 100,000 vaccinations.
  4. The case highlights conflicts between rapid crisis response and slow regulatory processes for vaccine approval.
  5. Stöcker's political affiliations may have influenced negative reactions from regulators.
  6. The story suggests potential value in allowing more flexible, decentralized responses to pandemics, while acknowledging the importance of safety regulations.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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