Vaccination centers in Europe are standing ready — but no vaccine is available. Pfizer has cut its production, and AstraZeneca has announced it would be delivering 60% less than agreed with the EU.
The European Union is well behind many other places in the world in its rate of inoculating people against the coronavirus. First, the bloc's vaccination campaign grappled with organizational problems; now, it is facing a shortage of vaccines.
The European Commission had signed contracts with eight manufacturers for a total of about 2 billion doses. But so far only, BioNTech-Pfizer has managed to deliver the goods, and even the US company temporarily cut back its production at the end of January.
AstraZeneca, for its part, plans to deliver only 40% of the announced doses in the first quarter. Are other countries receiving more vaccine doses than the EU, or has the bloc signed the wrong contracts?
The European Commission had previously vaunted its centralized vaccine procurement policy as a success story, in which all member states would gain equal access. "We are very active in terms of ensuring the companies work with us on the basis of the APAs [contracts] they have signed with us," said spokesman Eric Mamer, somewhat defensively, in response to reports of waning supplies. "The question is: What can all the actors do to ensure the process is a success?"
On Monday, the EU vaccine steering committee met with AstraZeneca to remind the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company of its contractual obligations. The EU already has high expectations of the vaccine, which should be approved by Friday — it's cheaper than earlier competitors and easier to store. However, AstraZeneca said last week that "initial volumes will be lower than expected" because of problems with a supplier. The EU had ordered 400 million doses from AstraZeneca.
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said after the talks that the company's answers had not been satisfactory. "The new schedule is not acceptable," she told DW. "The EU prefinanced the development and production of vaccine against COVID-19 with a total of € 2.7 billion ($3.3 billion) and wants to see the return. Which doses have been produced, where and to whom have they been delivered?" she said. "The EU wants the prefinanced and preordered doses. The contract needs to be fully fulfilled."
The EU, Kyriakides added, is demanding transparency. "In the future, all companies will have to provide early notification whenever they export a vaccine to a third country," she said. The remarks came in the wake of accusations that AstraZeneca is continuing to supply the UK while shortchanging the EU.
Peter Liese, health expert for the European People's Party group (EPP) at the European Parliament, also hasn't accepted AstraZeneca's explanations. "The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain — but not elsewhere — doesn't hold water, as it is no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent," he argued. He said that he hoped AstraZeneca would solve the problem soon.
Pfizer has also been unable to meet supply demands. "In order to respond to requests ... particularly those from the European Commission, we had to expand our capacities," said Pfizer spokeswoman Marie-Lise Verschelden, adding that means processes needed to be changed and new suppliers had to be won.
"All of these changes require regulatory approval, and that justifies the fact that we are going to have a little delay," she said. Pfizer gave assurances that production would be stepped up as early as February.
The Italian government wants to take Pfizer and AstraZeneca to court to force them to fulfill their signed contracts. "We are starting legal action to get the doses, not financial compensation," said Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio on state television on Sunday. Italy expects delays in its vaccination campaign of up to two months, Deputy Health Minister Pierpaolo Sileri told broadcaster RAI.
Clement Beaune, the French European Affairs minister, has also called on Pfizer to "honor its commitments." Ireland is equally upset because the shortages have messed up the country's vaccination plans, as are Sweden, Norway and several Eastern European countries. The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, did not mince words late last week, saying that "commitments on deliveries made by companies must be respected."
"All possible means will be examined to ensure rapid supply," he added.
As for the Moderna vaccines developed in the US, a consortium of three Swiss and other pharmaceutical service providers is to produce the vaccine for Europe. The scientists who developed the vaccine have never produced a vaccine on this scale, so production issues and delivery difficulties can be expected there as well.
The problem is that the vaccines were developed much faster than expected, and the companies don't have the large capacities needed for production, said Jutta Paulus, a German health expert for the Green Party in the European Parliament. And the production processes can't be created that quickly for MRNA-based vaccines like those by Pfizer and Moderna, either, she argued. "They are new complex processes; there are strict guidelines for manufacturing, and employees need to be trained."
But the EU is not to blame for the situation, she said. "AstraZeneca is said to have received a three-digit million sum to produce immediately, before approval," she said. "If they don't stick to the contract, that's not the European Commission's fault." The question was why the UK is still receiving the vaccine while the EU is not, she added.
But European Parliament members face problems in trying to ascertain how best to proceed against the manufacturers. While they have been given access to the contracts between the Commission and the producers, the crucial passages are blacked out, including delivery deadlines and contractual penalties. The various prices, on the other hand, have now been made public, thanks to a Belgian minister.
Paulus isn't in favor of taking legal action — what good would a verdict do two or three years down the road, she said. Instead, she believes it would make more sense to declare the licenses for the vaccines to be public goods. "There must be shared licenses now, because the vaccines have been developed with public money," she said, pointing out that this has been done before, for instance when India and South Africa took on the production certain AIDS drugs.
The EU could take a similar approach with the coronavirus vaccine, she said, allowing as many manufacturers as possible to start producing the vaccines at the same time. The scientists who developed the vaccines would have to be compensated, she added.
Do such radical ideas have a chance in Brussels? Perhaps not yet, observers say. But it would give the EU leverage to persuade the pharmaceutical companies to give in, provided they can produce sufficient quantities in the first place.
This article has been adapted from German.