EU ‘will not take up’ extra 300m Covid-19 vaccines under AstraZeneca, J&J contracts

Official says bloc will not seek optional doses secured under existing deals with two firms

A view of the European Commission Berlaymont building in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

A view of the European Commission Berlaymont building in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

 

The EU won’t take up an extra 300 million doses of AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines that it has secured as options under existing contracts, a senior EU official has told Reuters.

The decision is the latest sign Brussels is looking to distance itself from AstraZeneca amid simmering tensions after the drugmaker slashed its delivery targets for vaccines to the bloc due to production problems.

It is also further evidence the bloc is sidelining vaccines that have been linked with a very rare but potentially fatal side effect, and is confident other current suppliers – led by Pfizer/BioNTech – will deliver enough doses to inoculate at least 70 per cent of EU adults by the end of the summer.

Recently, the EU has sought to buy more shots from Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, stepping up its bets on the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology they use in their jab, as opposed to the viral vector technology used by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson (J&J).

The 27-nation bloc has a contract for a total of 400 million doses with J&J, of which only 200 million have already been ordered, and a separate contract with AstraZeneca for 400 million shots in total, of which only 300 million have been bought.

“There is no need to exercise the options” for the extra doses, the senior EU official, who is directly involved in talks with vaccine-makers, said.

EU governments are under pressure to accelerate their Covid-19 vaccination programmes, which have lagged behind those in Britain and the US due to supply delays and safety concerns, in order to help tame a third wave of infections on the continent.

A spokesman for the European Commission, which co-ordinates talks with vaccine-makers, said options can be exercised at any time, but declined further comment.

Booster shots

The senior EU official, who asked not to be named because the matter is confidential, said discussions were ongoing about further supplies for booster shots and to address coronavirus variants, and it was premature to rule AstraZeneca and J&J out of future contracts.

But the technology on which their shots are based is less appealing than other vaccine platforms, the official said. Last week, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that the EU would not renew contracts with the two companies when the contracts expire.

Both the AstraZeneca and J&J Covid-19 vaccines have been linked to very rare cases of blood clots, leading to some temporary suspensions in the use of the former, although the EU drugs regulator has concluded the benefits of both vaccines outweigh the risks.

Both companies have also had production problems, with AstraZeneca in particular slashing its EU supply targets by two-thirds to 100 million doses by the end of June, sparking fury in Brussels.

The EU official said AstraZeneca’s supply problems had convinced EU negotiators not to seek the optional extra doses from the company. Under the contract, that option should have been exercised by early March, although the EU could have still tried to order more doses after then.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca declined to comment.

The EU official added that, in the case of J&J, initial safety concerns about viral vector technology had pushed negotiators not to seek the optional doses and might also prevent talks for a new contract.

A spokeswoman for J&J declined to comment.

Widely criticised

The EU’s existing Covid-19 vaccine contracts have been widely criticised for being too lenient with companies because they set quarterly rather than monthly delivery targets, although other countries have done the same.

Last week, the European Commission said it was starting talks with Pfizer and BioNTech to buy up to 1.8 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses for the coming years under a new contract with monthly targets, as it prepares for the possible spread of new virus variants and potential waning protection from initial shots.

The EU source said the new contract with Pfizer and BioNTech was expected to meet a large share of the EU’s demand in 2022 and 2023.

The bloc, with a population of nearly 450 million, has already ordered 600 million Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines for this year. It has also bought 310 million doses from Moderna to be delivered this year, and has an option to buy another 150 million doses from the vaccine-maker next year. Moderna also uses mRNA technology.

The EU also has contracts with CureVac and Sanofi, but neither of them has completed clinical trials for their vaccines. – Reuters

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