Millions of extra Covid-19 vaccine doses have been secured for Ireland this year under new European Union deals, with planning underway to potentially alter the products in response to emerging variants of the disease.
The European Commission announced it had agreed to buy an additional 150 million doses of the Moderna vaccine this year for the bloc, with an option for 150 million more next year, almost tripling its previous order.
In addition, BioNTech-Pfizer announced that 500 million doses would be supplied to the EU this year instead of the previously expected figure of 300 million, with an option to purchase 100 million more.
Of these, 75 million Pfizer doses will be delivered between April and June, a significant boost to the number of vaccines available, which should ease a supply bottleneck that had hampered rollout efforts across the continent.
About 1.1 per cent of EU doses are earmarked for Ireland, with the share distributed based on a member state’s population size.
Using rough calculations, this would mean that the additional Pfizer doses would be enough to vaccinate about 410,000 more people in the State by June than had been anticipated, and an additional 687,500 in the remainder of the year. The extra Moderna doses due this year would be enough to vaccinate roughly 825,000 people.
The announcement came after pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson applied for authorisation for a single-shot vaccine in the EU, and said deliveries would start arriving between April and June provided it is approved.
The commission also announced €150 million in funding for research on Covid-19 variants, a clinical trial network and measures to speed up manufacturing and the approval process for updated vaccines.
It reflects alarm at new mutations of the disease and expectations that further strains will emerge that the vaccines are less effective against.
“We are seeing an increased number of cases of Covid linked to new variants,” commission president Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Tuesday.
“These variants are more infectious, so there are going to be more infections, and that will be mean more variants. And these variants may be more resistant to vaccines.”
Some member states are lagging behind on their vaccine rollouts and the commission president appealed to them to ramp-up the speed of their campaigns.
“We must and we shall accelerate vaccination in the months to come,” she said. “The aim is to use our combined strength to get ahead of the curve of this new phase of the virus.”
Some vaccines can be updated quickly in response to variants while others take longer. The messenger RNA technology that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on can be modified within weeks to adjust to mutations.
Moderna said work was already ongoing to prepare “vaccine boosts” to adjust to Covid-19 variants.
“The European Commission is in discussions with us on how to prepare for 2022, including addressing potential variants,” said Moderna chief executive Stéphane Bancel.
“Moderna is committed to working relentlessly to bring to market vaccine boosts with the relevant variants to address this global pandemic.”