EU could have purchased one billion doses of each vaccine but ‘money was constraint’

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Brussels has had a rough COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The campaign started with complaints that regulators were too slow to approve the shots and led to a simmering tussle with AstraZeneca as the pharmaceutical company repeatedly slashed its delivery commitments. More recently, several countries briefly halted their use of the Oxford-jab amid safety concerns, a move that baffled health experts and raised questions about future uptake.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) expressed concern earlier this month that the region’s ongoing coronavirus crisis appeared “more worrying”.

The health agency also described Europe’s vaccination campaign as “unacceptably slow” and said it was crucial to speed up the rollout.

Since then, the bloc has stepped up its campaign but a lot still needs to be done.

According to author and journalist Jillian Deutsch, the EU could have actually purchased more jabs but there was a problem: money.

She wrote in a report back in January: “Should countries have just purchased and approved vaccines themselves?

“They’ve learned from past experience: During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, pharma companies played EU countries off one another to charge more money for vaccines, with some states ending up with too many doses and selling them to neighbours.

“This time, EU countries agreed to let the Commission handle the negotiations.

“EU countries are still part of the process, however, as seven countries participate in the negotiations and all EU countries approve the deals before they’re signed.”

She noted: “The EU technically could have purchased one billion doses of each vaccine, but money was a constraint.”

It is not certain to what extent, Ms Deutsch insisted in her report for POLITICO, as almost all of the information in the EU’s vaccine contracts is secret.

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However, she added: “We know the Commission used about €2.1billion (£1.8bn) as down-payments on the vaccines, and asked EU countries for another €750million (£668bn) in the fall.

“Each EU country pays per dose when they submit orders for vaccines.

“Still, they’ve amassed one of the largest vaccine portfolios in the world.”

Last week, Brussels changed its vaccine strategy.

The bloc said that it was putting trust and money into the Pfizer-BioNTech shot to salvage its vaccination rollout and secure doses for the future.

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The pivot away from AstraZeneca, once a pillar of the EU’s programme, comes after months of discord over delayed shipments and as the company battles worries over rare potential side effects.

In announcing the change in strategy, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Pfizer had agreed to an early shipment of doses that she said should likely allow the bloc to reach its goal of inoculating 70 percent of adults by the end of the summer.

That goal was in jeopardy after AstraZeneca failed to deliver on expected doses in the first quarter of the year, then suffered fresh setbacks over potential side effects related to blood clots.

The European vaccine campaign was dealt a further blow earlier this month when Johnson & Johnson said it would delay its own rollout in Europe because of similar concerns and after regulators paused its use in the US.

Ms von der Leyen said as she announced that the bloc had begun negotiations with Pfizer for 1.8 billion doses for 2022 and 2023: “We need to focus now on technologies that have proven their worth: mRNA vaccines are a clear case in point.”

The EU chief added the Pfizer doses under negotiation for the next two years would include potential booster shots to extend the immunity of people who have already been inoculated, as well as possible new shots or boosters targeting emerging variants that might prove resilient against existing vaccines.

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