Covid-19: EU looks to double supply of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine

Member states under fire for slow rollout of immunisation programme as cases surge

The European Union is negotiating with Pfizer and BioNTech on a deal that could double their supply of Covid-19 vaccine as countries race to immunise enough people to tame a fresh virus resurgence.

The new contract would include 100 million doses, as well as an option for as many as 200 million more, according to people familiar with the talks who asked not to be identified because the negotiations are private.

Governments across the EU face growing questions over the slow pace of their vaccine rollouts, and shots from other drugmakers such as AstraZeneca won't be available for weeks at the earliest.

The attempt to secure more of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine comes less than a week after the 27-member bloc boosted its original 200-million-dose order to 300 million under a previous option arrangement. If the option in the new agreement were exercised, it would lift the total doses to 600 million, enough to vaccinate two-thirds of the bloc’s population based on a two-dose regimen.

The EU passed up an opportunity to secure greater numbers of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine last summer, according to an internal EU document seen by Reuters.

At a meeting with EU diplomats in July – when it appeared the Covid pandemic was under control – a European Commission official said the EU had declined an offer of 500 million doses from Pfizer and BioNTech because it was too expensive.

BioNTech’s American depositary receipts rose 2 per cent before US exchanges opened, and Pfizer showed little change.

Vaccine rollout

Member states have pressured the EU to secure more doses as the pandemic’s death toll rises, lockdowns lengthen and leaders worry about containing a new, more contagious strain of the virus that has emerged in Britain.

While the EU has signed deals with a range of companies for access to almost two billion doses, only the Pfizer/BioNTech shot has thus far won approval from its regulator.

A decision on a similar vaccine from US biotech Moderna could come on Wednesday after European regulators failed to reach a decision at a meeting on Monday. However, the EU has locked up less of that shot, with a contract for as many as 160 million doses.

The European Union has also secured agreement with AstraZeneca for 400 million doses of its two-shot vaccine developed with Oxford University, but that has been held up by confusion over data from clinical trials on the vaccine, exacerbated by a dosing error for some trial participants.

Health authorities had been relying on the AstraZeneca vaccine to do a lot of the heavy lifting in a national inoculation campaign, given its low cost and ability to be transported and stored for up to six months at standard refrigeration temperature, meaning that it can be delivered from GPs’ surgeries rather than specialist centres.

However, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which has been conducting a rolling review of the vaccine, decided that additional scientific information “on issues related to quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine is deemed necessary to support the rigour required for a conditional marketing authorisation”.

Despite the decision of the British government to approve the AstraZeneca jab, the EMA decision pushes back a date for a decision on its approval for use in EU states to later this month or, more probably, February.

US drugmaker Johnson & Johnson plans to deliver trial data for its vaccine candidate in January, teeing it up for US approval in February if its shot is effective.

It reduced the enrolment target for its clinical trial to 40,000 volunteers from 60,000 in early December in an effort to speed up results that are tied to how quickly participants become infected.

Additional supplies

"We are in talks about whether and how we can provide further vaccine doses from Europe, for Europe this year," BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin said in an emailed statement.

No agreement has been reached and the numbers could still change. A Pfizer spokesman declined to comment. A BioNTech spokeswoman declined to comment on the number of doses involved.

The European Commission is examining with BioNTech and Pfizer whether there is a way to increase supply beyond the initially contracted 300 million doses, Stefan De Keersmaecker, a health-policy spokesman, said on Monday. He declined to comment on Tuesday about the details of the extra shots being sought.

Pfizer and BioNTech are pursuing all their options to boost production capacity for the vaccine beyond the 1.3 billion doses originally planned for this year, Mr Sahin said in an interview last month.

He said he was confident that would be possible, saying the partners would probably know by January or February whether and how many additional doses they would be able to offer.

– Bloomberg/Reuters