The first vaccinations of residents at care homes in Belgium and other EU member states started today but it will take months until other priority groups and the whole population will get vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only vaccine which until now has been approved by the EU.
The European Commission launched the European Vaccines Strategy in June and signed the first contracts on behalf of all member states in August (Astra Zeneca) and in September (Sanofi-GSK), followed by other contracts with vaccine producers, all together up to 2 billion doses, more than enough for the EU.
The contract with Pfizer-BioNTech was signed on 17 November and provides for the initial purchase of 200 million doses, plus an option to request up to a further 100 million doses, to be supplied once a vaccine has proven to be safe and effective against COVID-19. A Commission spokesperson confirmed to The Brussels Times yesterday that the option was activated in mid-December.
In the meantime, production problems have slowed down the delivery of vaccine doses from Pfizer while vaccines from other pharmaceutical companies have not yet received a conditional approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The first vaccine in the pipeline is from Moderna which is expected to be approved in January.
Negotiations with vaccine producers took place before clinical trials had started or before the results of such trials were available. There was no certainty that any of the vaccine candidates would be effective and safe.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported before Christmas that the Commission has turned down an offer from Pfizer’s German partner, BioNTech, to buy 500 million doses. According to the newspaper, it was because of French opposition who allegedly favoured its own vaccine producer Sanofi, the first one with whom the Commission signed a contract.
Sanofi started a Phase 1/ 2 study in September together with its British partner SKF, followed by a Phase 3 study by the end of 2020. If successful, and subject to regulatory considerations, the companies aim to have the vaccine available by the second half of 2021.
The Commission spokesperson declined to confirm if and when an offer to buy more vaccine doses from BioNTech was on the table. If there were any negotiations with BioNTech, they are apparently over or on hold now.
“We do not comment on the course of the negotiations. However, the purpose of these negotiations was to build a diversified portfolio of vaccine candidates with different companies, using different technologies to increase the chances of developing a vaccine which would be safe effective and affordable,” he commented.
“This was a key objective of our EU Vaccines Strategy, to which all member states have formally signed up.” He added that almost all contracts with the vaccine developers include an option to buy additional doses with a view of giving the necessary flexibility to adjust to the data that were becoming available later.