Belgium will receive only 650,000 doses of the new AstraZeneca vaccine in the first quarter of the year, instead of the 1.5 million doses contracted for, federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke has confirmed.
“This is very bad news,” Vandenbroucke said, speaking on the RTBF.
AstraZeneca had previously warned that its deliveries would be less than expected, but the extent of the shortage has only now become clear.
“There are a lot of uncertainties and people need to understand that the vaccination task force will have to constantly review its strategy,” Vandenbroucke said. “But Pfizer and AstraZeneca are making this task extremely difficult,” he said on RTBF news.
The Covid-19 vaccine is expected to be approved by the European Medicines Agency at the end of the coming week, making it the third approved vaccine in Europe, after Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
The European Commission, acting on behalf of the 27 member states, has ordered a total of 400 million doses, with 100 million to be delivered in the first quarter. The arrival of that number of doses is important to the plan for mass vaccination of the general public, following on from the vaccination of niche groups like care home staff and residents and front-line medical staff.
The AstraZeneca vaccine has one important advantage: unlike the Pfizer vaccine, it does not require being stored at extreme low temperatures, making it much simpler to transport and stock.
The announcement is the second setback for the mass vaccination programme to come along in recent days.
A week ago Pfizer cut its deliveries so as to be able to overhaul its production facilities to produce more doses in the long run. Things should be back to normal by mid-February, the company said, with an extra 4.4 million doses coming in the second quarter.
Vandenbroucke lamented the dominant position of the pharmaceuticals companies in this crucial matter.
“On the market, they have a monopoly and we are totally dependent,” he said.
“The European Commission has an important role to play and must take a strong position vis-à-vis the industry, to demand what has been promised. These uncertainties make it very difficult to organise the campaign.”
Belgium has ordered a total of 7.7 million doses of AstraZeneca, two million of Moderna and 7.5 million extra doses of Pfizer, on top of the five million already on order.