Wednesday

20th Jan 2021

Coronavirus

EU Commission pushes back on 'slow' vaccine roll-out

  • The second Covid-19 vaccine produced by the US firm Moderna could be approved sometime this week (Photo: Département des Yvelines)

The EU Commission on Monday (4 January) pushed back against criticism that it acquired too few vaccines, causing delays in the roll-out of the anti-Covid-19 jabs in European countries.

The EU executive said it signed six contracts with companies working on vaccines, for two billion doses, in recent months - amid uncertainties which vaccine would be ready and approved first.

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Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one authorised in the EU.

The EU agency, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), could approve the vaccine developed by US biotech firm Moderna this week, probably by Wednesday at the latest. The EU has initially secured 80 million Moderna doses, with an option for 80 million more.

The EMA is also waiting for more data on a vaccine from AstraZeneca and Oxford University - which has already been approved in the UK.

A spokesperson for the commission said the aim was to create a diversified portfolio of vaccines.

"We don't put all our eggs in one basket," Stefan De Keersmaecker said, adding that EU leaders also agreed with the policy of not investing in one company, but several, which are working on vaccines.

Under these contracts, the EU has invested both in the development of the vaccines, in research and in capacity-building with various companies - in the hope that it would simplify negotiations and avoid EU member states competing against each other.

Early in the pandemic, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands had already started pooling resources to buy vaccines.

Despite negotiating together under an EU umbrella, member states themselves buy the vaccine doses from the companies directly.

Once a vaccine is considered safe by EMA, member states can place their orders and pay directly, without the commission's involvement.

Delivery also depends on member states, once the doses are produced: it is up to the EU countries and the specific companies to agree on the exact deliveries.

"It is the member states that then decide whether they want to buy the specific vaccine and how many doses, it is not us," commission spokesman Eric Mamer pointed out.

"We could sign contracts for purchase by member states for up to 10bn vaccines but if member states do not buy them, then it serves absolutely no purpose," he added.

The commission said that the roll-out was expected at the end of 2020, and will progressively build up - with big deliveries foreseen for April.

The EU executive also published recommendations in October to member states on how to prepare for a swift vaccination of the population.

The commission also said it is in discussions with Pfizer-BioNTech about the possibility of ordering more doses of their vaccine, in addition to the 300 million shots already covered under existing contracts.

Capacity bottleneck

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said over the weekend that a shortage of production capacity has caused the delays, not EU planning.

"The bottleneck at the moment is not the volume of orders but the worldwide shortage of production capacity," she told DPA, the German news wire.

Ugur Sahin, the co-founder of the German vaccine developer BioNTech, said he is hoping to be able to boost production of their vaccine by February.

He also said in an interview in Der Spiegel magazine on Friday that he had been surprised by the EU's restraint in securing more vaccines from them, saying that the current availability was not looking "rosy".

"We are lacking other approved vaccines and we have to fill this gap with our vaccine," the company founder said.

The commission on Monday did not specifically comment on earlier media reports that in July it had declined an offer of 500 million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech because it was too expensive. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the second-most expensive.

It also did not comment on German health minister Jens Spahn saying that his country could conduct direct negotiations with German vaccine developers to obtain more doses than under the EU plan.

France has come under specific criticism because it has so far managed only a few hundred doses of vaccines, compared with tens of thousands in Germany and nearly a million in the UK.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands will start its vaccination campaign on Wednesday.

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