EU Commission banks on mRNA vaccines for curbing COVID pandemic

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on Friday called for the creation of an African Green Deal which, like the European Green Deal, would be the "centrepiece" for Africa's recovery. [EPA-EFE]

The European Commission has moved to secure 1.8 billion more doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine amid speculation that it will not renew contracts with pharma companies AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

“We are now entering into a negotiation with BioNTech-Pfizer for a third contract. This contract will foresee the delivery of 1.8 billion doses of vaccine over the period of 2021 to 2023,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement on Wednesday (14 April).

In addition, the Commission also announced the purchase of 50 million additional doses of BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines. The doses, which were originally forecast for the fourth quarter of 2021, will now be delivered in the second quarter, bringing the total doses delivered by the company to 250 million doses between April and June.

Von der Leyen also made it clear that, looking to the future, mRNA vaccines were a top priority.

“At a certain point in time, we might need booster jabs to reinforce and prolong immunity; and if escape-variants occur, we will need to develop vaccines that are adapted to new variants; and we will need them early and in sufficient quantities,” she said.

“Having this in mind we need to focus on technologies that have proven their worth. mRNA vaccines are a clear case in point.”

The technology is a relatively new one, with human trials of vaccines using mRNA technology only starting in 2011. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines marked the first time this vaccine technology has completed human trials and been approved for use.

No data currently available on mixing COVID vaccines, says EMA

There are currently no guidelines on the “mixing and matching” of COVID-19 vaccines, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) clarified on Wednesday (7 April), as several European countries are now considering mixed vaccination strategies.

Von der Leyen’s comments follow claims that the Commission is not planning to renew COVID-19 vaccine contracts next year with pharma companies AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

The Commission would instead bank on COVID vaccines which use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which includes those from BioNTech / Pfizer, Moderna and CureVac, in the long-term fight against the corona pandemic, a Commission official said.

Asked by EURACTIV, a Commission spokesperson said that they were unable to comment on contractual issues, but offered assurances that nothing is yet set in stone.

“We keep all options open to be prepared for the next stages of the pandemic, for 2022 and beyond,” the spokesperson said.

The news comes after several reports suggested a possible link between Vaxzevria, the COVID-19 vaccine produced by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and rare blood clot incidents.

This has prompted a number of countries to suspend the rollout of AstraZeneca vaccines in recent weeks, while some have opted to impose age restrictions.

Similar concerns have since emerged over the safety of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which led producers to pre-emptively pause EU deliveries of its vaccine.

Future ‘belongs to mRNA vaccines’

Commenting on the news, centre-right MEP Peter Liese said he supported the decision to move towards mRNA vaccines, pointing out that they can be better adapted to mutations.

Although the MEP, who is also the EPP’s health policy spokesman, was quick to stress that vector vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are “good vaccines” and must be used to keep the pandemic under control by the summer, he emphasised that the future lies in mRNA vaccines.

“They are obviously more effective than the vector vaccines and also seem to have fewer side effects,” he said.

However, he warned that mRNA technology is very complicated, adding that there is a need to form a “technology partnership” to ensure that poorer countries are able to make the most of the technology on offer.

Johnson and Johnson vaccine probe deepens Europe's COVID woes

Europe’s stuttering vaccine rollout faced multiple hurdles as EU regulators said they were reviewing side effects of the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) shot and France further limited its use of the AstraZeneca jab.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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