The EU should have paid more attention to some vaccine manufacturers and their effective capacity when signing the contracts, the former co-chair of the EU vaccine steering board said during an event on Tuesday (18 May).
“We should have looked more into the manufacturing capacity,” Clemens Martin Auer told participants at the event, organised by the European Public Health Alliance.
A former Austrian representative and co-chair of the Commission’s vaccination advisory committee, Clemens Martin Auer stepped down from his role in March amid pressure from his government over the initial slow vaccine roll-out.
Without giving details, he referred to “at least one or two companies” that were “over-promising” with their delivery times but not to “the other company, which is now saving us”, which many understood to be BioNTech/Pfizer, although he did not name it.
Last July, the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca signed a contract for delivering 300 million doses to the EU with an option for a further 100 million doses.
However, only 50 million doses have been delivered so far, an amount which was due in January, according to the contract.
Since AstraZeneca has not fulfilled the production capacities agreed on in the contract, the European Commission launched court proceedings against the company at the end of April, hoping to secure delivery of all the remaining doses as soon as possible.
The EU has also not made any new orders for AstraZeneca vaccines beyond June when their contract ends, European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said earlier in May, after the EU signed a deal with Pfizer-BioNTech.
According to the lawyer representing the Commission in the trial with AstraZeneca, the EU wants at least 120 million doses from the company by the end of June.
During the event, Auer did not want to go into details of the negotiations with AstraZeneca in order not to jeopardise the court procedures.
He added that the fact that European Commission is going to court with AstraZeneca “shows that the contract is strong, and the lawyers […] know that this is a very, very difficult situation for AstraZeneca now”.
Not all eggs in AstraZeneca’s basket
Auer agrees that the vaccine portfolio was quite balanced in the beginning, saying the EU had “many eggs of Astra” in its bag as well as many eggs of BioNTech/Pfizer too.
To ensure that the needs of European citizens are covered, a risk portfolio was made to have enough doses in case any of the vaccine technologies did not get the market authorisation.
“That’s actually how it ended up. Even if you overlook, so to say, we are making contracts for much too many doses to cover 450 million people [in Europe],” he said.
“For us, the people who negotiated this, it was very clear [from our day-to-day contact with companies] that, in the beginning, we won’t have a big number of doses available,” he said.
He mentioned a necessary time for scaling up the production of vaccines. “You start producing low and then you reach higher numbers,” he added.
Auer also said that mRNA technology was a “challenging question” as this type of vaccines was not being produced on a large scale at the time.
“Yes, now we have the mRNA which is a little bit more complicated to handle. But remember back then all the complications: minus 60 degrees, storage…” he said recalling the general concerns over this technology last summer.
Earlier in May, the EU also concluded a milestone agreement with the US-German partnership Pfizer/BioNTech for €1.8 billion doses by 2023.
According to Auer, a distinction between vaccine makers is needed when it comes to the manufacturer’s management quality, as “the science behind all the vaccines we have now in Europe […] is perfect, good science.”
Last year, EU-27 member states came together with the EU executive to work together in securing vaccines for their citizens through advanced purchasing agreement (APA).
Having all the countries unite for vaccine purchase is one of the achievements highlighted during the event by Yannis Natsis, EPHA’s policy manager for universal access and affordable medicines.
“The EU vaccine strategy and joint procurement initiative is undeniably a success story still, irrespective of the problems that we had along the way, and it did prevent a divided Europe,” Natsis said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Gerardo Fortuna]