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By Francois Murphy and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen
VIENNA/COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Austria and Denmark, chafing at the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines within the European Union, have joined forces with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines against mutations of the coronavirus.
The move by the two EU member states comes amid rising anger over delays in ordering, approving and distributing vaccines that have left the 27-member bloc trailing far behind Israel's world-beating vaccination campaign.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said it was right that the EU procures vaccines for its member states but the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had been too slow to approve them and lambasted pharmaceutical companies' supply bottlenecks.
"We must therefore prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent only on the EU for the production of second-generation vaccines," the conservative chancellor said in a statement on Tuesday.
Danish Prime Minister Danish Mette Frederiksen was also critical of the EU's vaccine programme.
"I don’t think it can stand alone, because we need to increase capacity. That is why we are now fortunate to start a partnership with Israel," she told reporters on Monday.
When asked whether Denmark and Austria wanted to take unilateral action in obtaining vaccines, Frederiksen said: “You can call it that.”
The European Commission said member states were free to strike separate deals should they wish to. "It’s not that the strategy unravelled or it goes against the strategy, not at all," spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker said.
An EMA spokeswoman did not have an immediate comment.
Kurz and Frederiksen are due to travel to Israel this week to see Israel's rapid vaccine roll-out up close.
Israel, which was quick to sign contracts for and to approve vaccines from U.S. drug makers Pfizer and Moderna, has given 94 doses per 100 people and the EU just seven, according to monitoring by Our World in Data.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made the campaign a showcase of his bid for re-election on March 23, has spoken of "an international corporation for manufacturing vaccines".
None of the three countries has significant vaccine making capacity, however, raising questions over how realistic their ambitions are to gain greater self-sufficiency.
A growing number of EU countries have placed side orders for vaccines from Russia and China, even though the EMA has yet to rule on whether they are both safe and effective.
Slovakia said on Monday it had ordered 2 million doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine and expects half to arrive this month to help it end a surge in infections.
The neighbouring Czech Republic - tackling the worst COVID-19 outbreak of any EU country - is also considering ordering Russia's Sputnik V.
Hungary, meanwhile, has taken delivery of a vaccine developed by China's Sinopharm, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban announcing on Sunday that he had received the shot.
The three vaccines so far cleared for use in the EU, made by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca, rely on production in countries including Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Kurz said Austria and Denmark would work with Israel on vaccine production against mutations of the coronavirus and jointly research treatment options in an alliance called the First Movers Group.
The initiative, which seeks greater protection against future pandemics in addition to joint EU vaccine supply, follows Germany's decision last month to set up a task force to address supply bottlenecks and boost local manufacturing.
Kurz invited pharmaceutical companies with a local presence including Pfizer, Valneva, Novartis, Polymun and Boehringer Ingelheim on Tuesday to discuss the new initiative.
Pfizer, which declined comment for this story, has said it will make 2 billion doses this year - 70% of them in the EU - and has conducted extensive research into their effectiveness against coronavirus variants.
A spokesman for Boehringer Ingelheim said its focus was not on human vaccines "but if we receive requests we will of course look into them."
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Robert Muller and Jason Hovet in Prague; Writing by Douglas Busvine and Caroline Copley; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)