German chancellor Angela Merkel(AP)
German chancellor Angela Merkel(AP)

Merkel to convene crisis talks amid chaotic EU vaccine rollout

The video call this afternoon in Berlin comes after Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, announced that AstraZeneca Plc will deliver 9 million additional vaccine doses to the European Union in the first quarter.
Bloomberg |
PUBLISHED ON FEB 01, 2021 01:27 PM IST

Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold crisis talks with pharmaceutical executives, regional German leaders and European Commission officials Monday in a bid to speed up the continent’s stuttering vaccination push.

The video call this afternoon in Berlin comes after Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, announced that AstraZeneca Plc will deliver 9 million additional vaccine doses to the European Union in the first quarter. The EU has been locked in a bitter dispute with the drugmaker since AstraZeneca said it was reducing the number of shots delivered to the bloc due to production issues.

Von der Leyen said late Sunday on Twitter that the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker would start deliveries one week earlier than scheduled and expand manufacturing. The extra doses would bring the total to 40 million, only about half of what the EU had expected from Astra through March.

Separately, Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said Monday they will, as previously flagged, produce another 75 million doses of their vaccine for the EU in the second quarter. The two companies are “back to the original schedule of vaccine dose deliveries” to the EU after modifications to a facility in Puurs, Belgium, BioNTech said.

“We are now in discussions with additional qualified partners on potential new agreements” to further boost the capacity of our European manufacturing network, BioNTech Chief Financial Officer Sierk Poetting said in an emailed statement.

AstraZeneca triggered a crisis Jan. 22 when it said that problems at a plant in Belgium meant deliveries to the EU this quarter would be significantly curtailed. As a result, the bloc, which came under fire due to the slow rollout of national vaccination programs, said it would begin restricting the export of vaccines if drugmakers fail to meet delivery targets.

The episode has devolved into a bruising blame game that has pitted the 27-nation EU against the heft of the pharmaceutical industry, and has prompted fears that a wave of vaccine nationalism could hinder efforts to fight the pandemic. The bloc’s faltering vaccination program and its effort to rectify early mistakes have drawn criticism from many sides, including from companies such as AstraZeneca that it needs to combat the Covid crisis.

Export curbs could disrupt vaccine supply chains as billions wait to be inoculated before the spread of mutations renders the virus less vulnerable to the available shots.

“We want 70% of the grownup population to be vaccinated by the end of the summer,” von der Leyen said in an interview Sunday with German broadcaster ZDF. She added that supplies should increase significantly in the second quarter when Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies overcome early hurdles. A spokesman for Astra declined to comment on the additional deliveries.

Astra Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said last week the company was trying to source more supplies from around the world to increase deliveries to the EU, adding that “we are working 24/7 to increase this capacity.”

So far, the EU’s 27 governments have administered just 2.8 doses of vaccine per 100 people, far behind the 14.2 doses in the U.K. and 9.7 in the U.S. The delays could derail Europe’s plans to exit recession-inducing lockdowns, amid a widening backlash against governments over prolonged stay-at-home orders.

The EU’s drug regulator cleared the Covid-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford on Friday. It’ll be the third vaccine available in the EU after shots from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Inc., potentially easing a shortage of shots as the EU trails the U.K. and the U.S. in vaccinations.

In the ZDF interview, Von der Leyen said she spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said that both Astra production plants would deliver to Europe. “Our enemy is the virus and the pharmaceutical industry is part of the solution,” she said.

Better Prepared

Von der Leyen on Sunday held a video call with chief executives of pharmaceutical companies including AstraZeneca and Moderna to discuss how vaccines could be more rapidly deployed, manufactured and approved in the future.

“The pandemic highlighted that manufacturing capacities are a limiting factor. It is essential to address these challenges,” the commission said in a statement after the call. It added that “the emergence of variants of concern raises the imminent threat of reduced efficacy of recently approved vaccines.”

Sunday’s discussion focused on the EU’s longer term health strategy and preparedness. Inspired by early stumbles in curbing the spread of the coronavirus last year, the push for a common approach aims to guard against a patchwork of national responses to any future health scares.

Also included in the meeting were executives from BioNTech, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, CureVac NV and Sanofi, according to the statement.

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