EU to strike world’s largest vaccine deal with Pfizer


The European Commission says it expects to seal the world’s biggest vaccine deal within days, buying up to 1.8 billion doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine over the next two years as a debate rages over unfair access to shots for the world’s poorest people.

The vaccines from U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech would be delivered over 2021-2023, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said during a visit to Pfizer’s vaccine plant in Puurs, Belgium.

The agreement would be enough to inoculate the European Union’s 450 million people for two years and comes as the bloc seeks to shore up long-term supplies.

This is the third contract made by the bloc with the two companies, which have already agreed to supply 600 million doses of the two-dose vaccine this year under previous contracts. Brussels is aiming to inoculate at least 70 per cent of EU adults by July.

The move comes as the commission looks to sever ties with AstraZeneca after the drugmaker slashed its delivery targets due to production problems. On Friday, the EU was deciding whether to take legal action against the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company over vaccine shortfalls.

An EU official said the supply deal was agreed in principle but that both sides needed a few days to iron out final terms.

“We will conclude in the next days. It will secure the doses necessary to give booster shots to increase immunity,” von der Leyen said.

Puurs plant to produce 100 million doses by May

Pfizer has scrambled to boost output in recent months at its U.S. and Belgian plants to meet growing demand.

Bourla said Puurs is expected to have the capacity to produce more than 100 million doses by May.

Separately, the EU drug regulator said it had approved an increase in batch sizes for shots made there, which von der Leyen said will mark a 20 per cent increase in output.

A company official said has exported about 300 million vaccines to more than 80 countries around the world.

From right to left, Pfizer’s managing director in Belgium, Luc Van Steenwinkel, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, BioNTech co-founder Ozlem Tureci, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen oversee the production of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine during a visit of the factory in Puurs Friday. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Still, the deal will likely stir the debate about the widening gap with lower-income countries as the world’s wealthiest nations scoop up stocks and race ahead with inoculation campaigns.

The United States has given more than 40 per cent of its population at least one dose while in India, where infections have hit records, only eight per cent have had a first dose, and in some African countries only one per cent ar innoculated, according to a Reuters analysis. 

About 27 per cent of people in Canada have been given at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

On Friday, World Health Organization (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said vaccines remain out of reach in the lowest-income countries, in comments made marking the first anniversary of the COVAX dose-sharing facility.

The EU supply deal is also the latest move by Brussels to increase its bets on the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology the companies use rather than the viral vector technology deployed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

The AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines have been linked with a very rare but potentially fatal side effect.

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