The European Union is to move towards joint procurement of Covid-19 medicines, in a potential repeat of the system used to secure vaccine supplies for its 27 member states.
The development comes after Pfizer reported encouraging trial results for an anti-viral Covid-19 pill that the pharmaceutical company said could cut hospitalisations and deaths among high-risk patients by almost 90 per cent.
EU countries opted for joint procurement of vaccines for the first time last year, to avoid having member states compete against each other for supplies and push up prices, and to ensure equity of access between small countries and larger ones that could potentially wield more clout with pharmaceutical companies.
Despite initial problems with delivery delays and a rollout that was slower than in the UK and United States, the vaccination procurement is now widely seen by EU governments as a success and there is support for a repeat of the system.
National leaders agreed in a Brussels summit on Thursday that "the EU strategy on Covid-19 therapeutics, including joint procurement, should be taken forward", according to a copy of the conclusions.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin described the development of Covid-19 medicines as a reason for hope for the coming year.
“I think this is another plus another positive for 2022, which is why I’m more hopeful in terms of looking for the next 12 months,” he said ahead of the summit.
He also said the EU’s vaccine procurement team was co-ordinating with pharmaceutical companies to secure supplies of a potential “Omicron-specific” vaccine tailored to protect people against the new variant.
“The commission are looking at working with the pharmaceutical companies now, for example, on an Omicron-specific vaccine. That’s on the cards, that’s on the agenda,” Mr Martin said.
He added that manufacturers of mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, were able to tweak their vaccines to cope with mutations in the virus. "Certainly the commission are looking at that, and the steering board has been engaging with the pharmaceuticals," he said.
“We do know the pharmaceuticals, particularly mRNA manufacturers, have the capacity to create formulations that respond to particular variants. And my understanding is that that discussion is ongoing in respect of Omicron.”
The EU's existing vaccine contracts include agreements that manufacturers would update vaccines if needed. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that new updated vaccines "could even be ready by March or April and be approved swiftly" by the European Medicines Agency.
The summit revealed tensions between member states over travel rules amid rising concerns over the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Italy, Portugal and Ireland have tightened travel restrictions by imposing testing requirements on travellers from within the EU who are vaccinated.
The move by Italy, which included an order for unvaccinated people to quarantine for five days on arrival, drew an appeal from the commission for member states to notify it of such moves, and complaints from other member states.
"The fact is, if we have new individual national regulations, how should we convince people to get vaccinated?" Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel said to journalists.
“If you make no difference between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people, because they need a PCR test, I think it’s the wrong idea.”
The EU leaders agreed on the importance of consistent rules across the EU around booster shots and how long a “fully vaccinated” status should be valid on Covid-19 digital certificates before expiring. The commission has been charged with drawing up a common proposal on the issue for member states to follow, with consensus narrowing on a validity period of nine months after the initial full vaccination before a booster is required.