EU will not renew AstraZeneca contract as it pivots towards Pfizer's vaccine

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Europe is turning to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine to inoculate its population by summer - JACK GUEZ /AFP
Europe is turning to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine to inoculate its population by summer - JACK GUEZ /AFP

The European Commission will not renew its order of AstraZeneca vaccines when it expires this summer, amid legal disputes over supply issues and a pivot towards the Pfizer jab.

"We haven't renewed the contract beyond the month of June," Thierry Breton, the European internal market commissioner told French radio.

"Whether we do remains to be seen."

This did not necessarily mean the end of the EU’s dealings with the British-Swedish firm, he added: "It's not done. Wait and see.”

The EU originally wanted to use the AstraZeneca jab as the main driver of its vaccination campaign and could have triggered a clause for an additional 100 million doses.

But the move away from the vaccine is not unexpected given the fraught relations between the EU and the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company in recent months.

Last month, the Commission launched legal action against AstraZeneca for not respecting its contract for the supply of Covid-19 vaccines and for not having a "reliable" plan to ensure timely deliveries.

The Commission says AstraZeneca looked set to deliver only a third of the 300 million doses it had promised by June.

Public confidence in the AstraZeneca jab has also taken a hammering over concerns that in a few rare cases it can cause blood clots in the brain.

Europe's medicines regulator said on Friday it is reviewing reports of a rare nerve-degenerating disorder in people who received the shots.

Some EU countries have restricted its use to older people despite the bloc's medicines agency insisting the jab's benefits outweigh the risks.

The EU now intends to use the more expensive Pfizer-BioNTech jab for the bulk of its vaccination programme.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the Commission, has signalled a preference for mRNA vaccines such as the one made by Pfizer, which work differently from the AstraZeneca jab.

On Saturday, the Commission agreed to a massive contract extension for a potential 1.8 billion doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine between now and 2023.

Ms von der Leyen said her office has approved a contract for a guaranteed 900 million doses with the same number of doses as a future option.

In contrast to AstraZeneca, Ms von der Leyen has said that Pfizer-BioNTech is a reliable partner that delivers on its commitments.

The Commission has already secured 600 million Pfizer doses, part of a portfolio of 2.6 billion doses from half a dozen companies.

The new agreement, which has the unanimous backing of the 27 EU member nations, will entail not only the production of the vaccines but also make sure that all the essential components are sourced within the EU.

Pfizer is expected to deliver 250 million doses across the EU during the second quarter of this year as the 27 nations look to meet a target of vaccinating 70 percent of adults by July.

A nurse holds a phial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy's Hospital in London  - Getty
A nurse holds a phial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy's Hospital in London - Getty

The EU hopes the expanded contract will help it to provide the necessary booster shots to people who have already received a vaccine dose, expand vaccination drives to include children and teenagers, and tackle possible new virus variants.

The enormous number of doses - 1.8 billion doses for a bloc of 450 million residents - will provide for a lot of options, Ms von der Leyen said at an EU summit in Portugal on Saturday.

"That includes the possibility for the member states to donate or resell doses" at a lower price to help nations in the immediate neighbourhood or beyond, she said.

So far, the EU has made some 200 million doses available to its 450 million residents while almost as many have been exported from the bloc, according to Ms von der Leyen.

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