After months of broken promises and unmet contractual targets, the European Commission has stepped up its legal offensive against pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca. But EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides says its vaccine remains an “important part” of the EU portfolio in the efforts to protect Europeans against the COVID-19.
In an interview with EURACTIV.com and three European media, the Cypriot psychologist turned politician expressed her confidence in delivering the necessary doses to reach the vaccination target of 70% of Europe’s adult population by July.
How is the vaccine strategy progressing in member states?
Vaccination has really started to gain pace across the EU over the past weeks. Almost 35% of the population received the first dose, and we are close to 14% in terms of the second dose. Back in January, we were administering around 300,000 doses per week. Now we have surpassed 20 million doses per week. We administer about three million vaccines every day. Given our current numbers, we can look at this with confidence and say we will be able to deliver enough doses to reach the target of 70% of adults vaccinated by July. This allows us to look towards summer with cautious optimism. But in a crisis like the current pandemic you need to be prepared.
We are preparing for the possibility that we may need bolster jabs before the end of the year. We are also looking at the possible need to vaccinate our children and teenagers under 16 years old. Over the weekend, we approved a contract for 1.8 billion doses of the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine for 2022 and 2023. More agreements are likely to follow. This is a contract for the benefit not only of EU citizens. We want to share as much as possible in this global pandemic. Europe is the only continent that is, at the same time, massively vaccinating its population, and also exporting to other parts of the world. We have exported over 200 million doses since January.
Last week, you launched the COVID therapeutics strategy. Why now?
This is a very important initiative. We were very focused on the vaccines, but COVID-19 is proving to be a virus that we know now will probably become endemic. COVID vaccines cannot be our only response to this pandemic. In addition, we are seeing what is called ‘long COVID’, those who are experiencing long-term effects of this disease. This is taking a major toll on people. By October, we aim to develop and authorise three new effective COVID-19 therapeutics, and potentially another two by the end of the year.
How is the EU addressing the vaccine hesitancy? Is it because of the issues with AstraZeneca?
All member states need to address this issue, because we can only open up our countries effectively if we have also covered a significant part of the population with vaccines. If you have a high degree of vaccine hesitancy, variants will spread. We are working very closely with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and experts to have an overview of the situation in different member states. We need to understand why we have more difficulties in some member states for reaching the vaccination rates that we would want. As you said, it could be because of the lack of confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine. But it could be because of many other reasons. We need to be aware of the differences at the national level.
Speaking of AstraZeneca, the European Commission has launched new court proceedings against the company. The lawyer representing the Commission said the EU wants at least 120 million doses by June. Are you seeking also economic compensation?
Proceedings are ongoing. AstraZeneca remains an important part of the EU portfolio. Many of our citizens are given this vaccine across the Union. We want to have the vaccines that the company had committed to in the contract delivered to us as quickly as possible, because they had not respected the agreements.
What other contracts does the Commission have in mind for future vaccines?
We may need vaccines that are adaptable to variants at a very short notice. This is key to our preparedness. With this in mind, we focus on technologies that have proven their worth, such as mRNA vaccines. But of course we will also explore other contracts, for example, based on other technologies like protein-based technologies. Having a broad portfolio of vaccines gives us the opportunity to be flexible, and the ability to respond as quickly as possible to the pandemic.
How should the restrictions be eased?
Vaccinations and proof of it with the Green certificate will be an opportunity for member states to adjust their existing restrictions. We still have to proceed with caution and look carefully at the impact of easing restrictions on the spread of the virus and the situation with the variants. The ECDC is currently in the process of developing a modelling to help member states in taking decisions on the lifting of measures and to calculate the possible impact on lifting such restrictions, to define what is appropriate and safe and when. Ultimately, what we would like is to be able to open up our economies and societies in a safe way as quickly as possible.
When will we have more clarity on the vaccination for children?
We’re now looking at the possibility that, sooner or later, children and adolescents will also be vaccinated. The safety assessment of the European Medicines Agency is absolutely fundamental. EMA started 10 days ago the evaluation of the use of the BioNTech Pfizer vaccine for children between 12 years to 15 years old. We expect the evaluation to come out in the coming weeks. It has already authorised this vaccine for those over 16 years. This is another very important part of the vaccination strategy that is moving on very quickly.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]