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8th May 2021

EU to buy 1.8bn BioNTech jabs, in switch to mRNA vaccines

  • The vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna use 'new messenger RNA' (mRNA) technology to trigger an immune response (Photo: Arne Müseler)

The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday (14 April) announced the bloc has entered negotiations to buy 1.8 billion doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine - to be delivered between now and 2023.

She also confirmed that member states will receive, starting this month, 50 million additional Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccines, as doses initially expected at the end of 2021 were brought forward to the second quarter.

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In total, the company will supply the EU with 250 million doses from April to June.

Notably, von der Leyen expressed full confidence in Pfizer/BioNtech, saying that it has proven to be "a reliable partner" in both its product and its contractual commitments.

"We need to focus on technologies that have proven their worth," she said.

The announcement comes after Italian newspaper La Stampa reported on Wednesday that the EU executive has decided not to renew the contracts with AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson for 2022.

"The European Commission, in agreement with the leaders of many [EU] countries, has decided that the contracts with the companies that produce [viral vector] vaccines that are valid for the current year will not be renewed at their expiry," the newspaper stated.

It added that the EU executive will focus on the so-called mRNA vaccines, such as those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which uses new messenger RNA (mRNA) technology to trigger an immune response.

Brussels has yet to confirm that report, but a commission spokesperson told EUobserver that the institution is keeping "all options open to be prepared for the next stages of the pandemic, for 2022 and beyond".

However, following talks with the EU executive, the European People's Party MEP, Pieter Liese - who is also a medical doctor - stated that that "the European Commission will no longer buy vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca".

"The future belongs to mRNA vaccines," he said, adding that these jabs are more effective than the vector vaccines (such as AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson), seem to have fewer side effects, and can be adapted to mutations more quickly.

'Race against time'

So far, EU member states have received over 126 million vaccines, of which more than 100 million have already been used - with some 27 million Europeans being already fully vaccinated.

"We are in a race against time," von der Leyen said, adding that "the faster we reach our target of having 70 percent of the adult population in Europe vaccinated, the better the chances of containing the virus."

However, she also pointed out that "there are still many factors that can disrupt the planned delivery schedule of vaccines".

One of those was the recommendation earlier this week by US health authorities for a "pause" of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over reports of very rare cases of bloc clots, which led to the pharmaceutical company deciding to delay the roll-out of its Covid-19 vaccine in Europe.

The European Medicine Agency said it is reviewing the reported cases of blood clots that occurred in the US, and a recommendation is expected next week.

"While its review is ongoing, EMA remains of the view that the benefits of the vaccine in preventing Covid-19 outweigh the risks of side effects," it said in a statement.

The EU had signed a contract with Johnson & Johnson for 200 million doses to be delivered this year - with the option for member states to purchase an additional 200 million.

Meanwhile, Denmark announced Tuesday it would stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine completely over suspected rare side effects.

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