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EU picks vaccine sides for future pandemic fight

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The EU is going mRNA all the way. 

“We need to focus on technologies that have proven their worth: mRNA vaccines are a clear case in point,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated Wednesday, announcing that the Commission is in talks to buy another 1.8 billion coronavirus vaccine doses from BioNTech/Pfizer.

These doses, to be distributed between 2021 and 2023, are expected to help the bloc in the event Europeans need booster shots or retooled vaccines to fight coronavirus variants, von der Leyen said.

The German-American company duo, the star pupil in the EU’s vaccination drive, also announced that it would be able to provide 50 million doses that were originally planned at the end of 2021 starting this month — totaling 250 million BioNTech/Pfizer doses for the EU by June. 

Von der Leyen’s announcement was a rare positive message about the EU’s vaccination campaigns to a bloc that has faced repeated bad news about delayed deliveries and safety concerns. 

This time, the Commission president assured citizens that this effort is picking up speed: Wednesday marked 100 million vaccinations. Twenty-seven million people are fully vaccinated with their second dose. Countries have received 126 million doses as of Tuesday. 

“We are in a race against time,” she said. “[But] this is a milestone that we can be proud of.”

“The EU’s vaccine production capacity is increasing massively as illustrated by the acceleration of BioNTech/Pfizer deliveries to Europe in the second quarter,” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton wrote in a statement. “By mid-July, member states will have enough doses to vaccinate 70 percent of adults.”

The early 50 million doses will allow the EU to vaccinate up to 90 percent of its target by the end of the summer if AstraZeneca delivers 70 million doses by the end of June and 10 million in July, one Commission official noted.

More broadly, the new deal and sped-up deliveries provided a new opportunity for von der Leyen to insist that the tide is turning on vaccinations, and it’s time to change the EU’s tune. The 1.8 billion-dose BioNTech/Pfizer deal — if added on top of every other dose the EU secured — means the bloc technically has enough does to vaccinate the entire adult population roughly six and a half times over. 

But as Europeans now know, unexpected bumps can come any time. Pointing to Tuesday’s news that Johnson & Johnson was suspending its European rollout citing blood clotting issues in the U.S., von der Leyen noted “there are still many factors that can disrupt the planned delivery schedule of vaccines.”

“It is therefore important to act swiftly, anticipate and adjust whenever it is impossible,” she said.

Race against time

Most countries plan to use the first boxes of J&J vaccines that arrived this week, despite the fact that the company said they should wait for a more detailed safety assessment from European regulators next week. Some countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands, said they would follow suit and pause the use of the J&J vaccine. Others, like France and possibly Italy, plan to restrict the use of the vaccine to older populations. 

With Oxford/AstraZeneca, countries have taken a more fragmented approach: Some use it in adults, others restrict it to different age groups or, in Denmark’s case, stop using it entirely. 

But the EU is looking ahead to the next generation of vaccines possibly needed in the coming years, and so far, it plans to bank heavily on what it sees as an increasingly reliable option: mRNA vaccines. 

BioNTech/Pfizer proved it can deliver the goods. As one diplomat put it: “They work and they are being delivered.”

Adenovirus viral vector vaccines, meanwhile, are increasingly becoming second-tier vaccines in the EU, as countries suspend their use and they boast lower efficacy rates.

“The future belongs to mRNA vaccines,” Peter Liese, the European People’s Party health spokesperson in the European Parliament, wrote in a statement. “They are obviously more effective than the vector vaccines and seem to have fewer side effects. But the most important advantage is that they can be adapted to mutations more quickly and in a more targeted way.”

Liese added that the Commission will not renew contracts with other producers, as first reported by La Stampa. 

Other EU officials, however, said there has not been a decision on whether to sign additional contracts with producers like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. “They haven’t excluded specific vaccine developers,” the Commission official said. Countries haven’t decided yet either whether to exercise the option of buying more doses, as set out in the EU’s first contract.

One senior diplomat said countries shouldn’t be too quick to write off other vaccines like Johnson & Johnson: “We must be careful not to overreact [and] leave the judgment to EMA [the European Medicines Agency], especially when it comes to J&J, which has been very cooperative and transparent.”

But it’s unclear whether more options will emerge soon.

EU talks are stuck with both Novavax, an American company producing a vaccine based on recombinant nanoparticle technology, and Valneva, a French company making an inactivated virus vaccine, due to issues with delivery schedules, according to another EU diplomat. 

Still, the EU expects more mRNA vaccines to come: Moderna is negotiating a further contact with the EU, according to an industry official. That comes on top of contracts to deliver 310 million doses by the end of 2021 and the option to buy another 150 million in 2022. 

By the summer, the EU also expects to have its third mRNA vaccine from German biotech company CureVac approved and ready to use.  

Still, the expanding portfolio of vaccine doses also raises questions about when the Commission will make good on its promise to sell or donate excess doses to third countries. The Commission still has not unveiled its mechanism — promised by both von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel since the end of January — to do so.

“We also need an international initiative to vaccinate people all over the world with mRNA vaccines if possible,” Liese said. 

Jacopo Barigazzi and Cornelius Hirsch contributed reporting.

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