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Pfizer cuts back vaccine deliveries to EU

January 15, 2021

The EU will be getting fewer BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine doses than planned in the coming weeks, as Pfizer tries to amp up its production capacity. Several EU nations decried the situation as "unacceptable."

The BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine
Norway says there will be further delays of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.Image: Sven Hoppe/dpa/picture alliance

Pfizer and BioNTech will temporarily cut shipments of its coronavirus vaccine to Europe, several European governments confirmed on Friday.

Germany said the delivery schedule would be impacted for the next three to four weeks as the US company is making changes to its production site in the Belgian town of Puurs.

"At short notice, the EU Commission and, via it, the EU member states, were informed that Pfizer [and BioNTech] would not be able to fully meet the already promised delivery volume for the next three to four weeks due to modifications at the Puurs plant," the ministry said.

German authorities said they "regretted" the unexpected news about deliveries of the vaccine, which was developed with the German company BioNTech. Berlin urged the European Commission to "seek clarity and certainty" for upcoming deliveries.

EU nations angry

Six EU nations decried the situation as "unacceptable" in a letter sent to the EU Commission after the move by Pfizer and BioNTech.

"Not only does it impact the planned vaccination schedules, it also decreases the credibility of the vaccination process," said the health ministers of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

They also urged the European Commission to "demand a public explanation."

Lithuania previously reported that it would received be receiving only half of the agreed shots from this week to mid-February.

"The manufacturer told us the cuts are EU-wide," Lithuanian Health Ministry spokesman Vytautas Beniusis told the Reuters news agency on Friday. Belgium said its supplies would also be halved until mid-February.

US still on schedule

EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen later commented on the news, citing Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla as saying he would do everything possible to reduce delays. The Pfizer chief would  "personally" work to bring the deliveries on track "as soon as possible,"  said von der Leyen.

"He reassured me that all guaranteed doses of the first quarter will be delivered in the first quarter," she said of Bourla.

Pfizer initially said deliveries were proceeding according to schedule. However they later admitted that the deliveries would be impacted in late January to early February as the company is amping up production

In a statement on Friday, Pfizer and BioNTech claimed the "fluctuations" triggered by the improvements in the Puurs plant would "provide a significant increase in doses available for patients in late February and March."

The companies also said the US market would not be affected. However, Canadian officials reported their country would be impacted by the downsizing and called the changes "unfortunate."

More trouble for EU leaders

The EU approved the BioNTech-Pfizer product in late December, with Moderna's vaccine also getting the green light earlier this month.  The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be cleared for use in the EU by the end of the month.

The latest cuts will likely add more pressure on the governments across the continent as they struggle with mammoth vaccination drives. In Germany and other EU countries, authorities have been accused of dragging their feet or botching the inoculation campaigns.

Pfizer aiming for 2 billion doses per year

Norway, which is not an EU member, was the first to announce the setback. The country's Institute of Public Health (FHI) said the US pharma giant wants to upgrade its production capacity to 2 billion vaccine doses per year from 1.3 billion currently. They also said it was unclear how long it would take before Pfizer is up to maximum production capacity again.

"We received this message today a little before 10 a.m. (0900 GMT). We had expected 43,875 vaccine doses from Pfizer in week 3 [next week]. Now it appears that we will get 36,075 doses," the agency said.

To compensate for the reduction in deliveries, Norway will use some of the vaccine doses it had put aside as a precaution when it received its first allotments.

Norway is closely linked with the EU in numerous areas because it is inside the bloc's single market. As in Lithuania and Germany, the procurement of Norway's COVID vaccines is negotiated by EU officials.

jf,dj/ng (Reuters, AFP)