EU Commission wants extra €1.5 billion to fight pandemic

A medical worker shows to media a vaccine of the Pfizer-BioNTech against the COVID-19 at the health centre of the General University Hospital in Prague, Czech Republic, 27 December 2020. [EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK]

The European Commission said it will need to tap into the EU budget margins this year – around €1.5 billion – to monitor progress made with vaccination campaigns, finance pharmacovigilance studies, and fight against the new variants of COVID-19.

Sandra Gallina, the director general of the Commission’s health department, appeared before the European Parliament’s budget committee on Monday (1 February) to answer questions about the EU’s vaccine strategy and the contracts signed with pharmaceutical companies, following the dispute with AstraZeneca.

The chair of the committee, Johan van Overtveldt (ECR, Belgium), asked Gallina if the Commission was planning to use the margins of the EU budget available for this year – totalling €1.5 billion – in the fight against the pandemic. This amount includes €900 million from the so-called flexibility instrument, which pays for specific expenditure not covered by the EU budget.

“We need to use that money,” Gallina replied, saying the funds will be invested in monitoring the vaccination campaigns across EU member states. Although all the vaccines are registered, not all national authorities keep their records in digitised format, and that is an “important piece of work,” she said.

The extra funds could also be used to finance pharmacovigilance studies done by member states on issues such as using a dose from a vaccine to boost a first jab from a different pharma company. 

But Gallina insisted especially that the money would be necessary to do research on the new variants of the virus.

“I thank the budget committee if you help us for the variants,” she said.

Gallina explained that the EU had so far invested over €3.4 billion to fight the pandemic: €2.7 billion from EU funds and €750 million coming from EU member states. 

Around 84% has been spent on vaccines, while the rest has been dedicated to buy anti-viral drug Remdesivir, acquire rapid antigens tests and train health workers. 

More than half of the money added by member states – around €416 million – will be used to purchase Novavax and Valneva vaccines, which are still in development phase.

With these two companies, the Commission will have a total of eight vaccines in its portfoilio. 

Responding to questions from MEPs, Gallina said the EU would not have received more doses from the companies if it had paid more per dose, as “the problem is manufacturing”.

She also rejected suggestions that other countries like the US or the UK, which have better vaccination rates, are receiving “better treatment than us” from pharma companies. 

“In essence, we are getting what we have ordered,” she said, being AstraZeneca the only exception.

Gallina explained that the volume of deliveries agreed with AstraZeneca was in the “three digit” range but had been reduced to only one quarter after the problems announced by the company in late January. Deliveries could reach 30% of the agreed volume, depending on whether the company confirms the latest announcement, she said.

AstraZeneca said over the weekend that it could deliver nine million additional doses to reach 40 million. 

That would suggest that the agreed figure until March was 120 million doses, instead of 80 million as included in media reports.

AstraZeneca obligation to supply EU with UK-made vaccines exposed

The European Commission’s contract with AstraZeneca to supply COVID-19 vaccines includes Britain along with the EU as places where the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker should make its best efforts to manufacture its vaccines for the EU.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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