RPT - REVIEW - EU Risks Missing 70% Vaccination Target By Summer As New AstraZeneca Delay Feared

BRUSSELS (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 26th February, 2021) Another cold shower comes for the European Commission, which is managing the vaccination campaign for some 450 million Europeans, as AstraZeneca is said to have informed it that it will be able to deliver less than half vaccine doses that it was contracted to ship in the second quarter of 2021.

The reports emerged on Tuesday, a day after Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton visited a Pfizer factory in Belgium's Puurs and pledged to win the "industrial battle."

In a strong blow last month, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna both announced delays and a reduction in deliveries. Now, women and men at the Pfizer plant in Puurs are "working night and day" to produce the vaccine, Breton assured the public after the visit.

But, a new surprise came again from Anglo-Swedish producer AstraZeneca.

ASTRAZENECA NIGHTMARE FOR EU COMMISSION

AstraZeneca was committed to delivering 180 million doses to Europe in the second quarter of 2021, and the European Commission was getting ready to dispatch the shots to all corners of the bloc. Now, Reuters reports that it would deliver less than 90 million doses in the second quarter.

The reported cut in supplies comes after AstraZeneca said that it would deliver just 40 million doses in the first quarter, less than half the 90 million shots it was supposed to supply.

In late January, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot angrily refuted any quantified commitments to the EU for the first quarter. The European Commission had disputed his arguments and asked the company to publish the contract.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides then attacked AstraZeneca, accusing it of not respecting the contract: "We regret the continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule and request a clear plan from AstraZeneca for the fast delivery of the quantity of vaccines that we reserved for Q1."

When the contract was published, Soriot was vindicated; there was no reason for the arrogant attitude of the commission, as AstraZeneca had indicated several times in the contract that it would just "do its very best to respect the agenda of deliveries."

The EU demand to have UK factories prioritize production for the bloc was also abandoned.

The contract did include these factories but without priority ranking, and the vaccines were produced for Britain, which had already inoculated the first dose of the vaccine to millions by the time and needed second doses. Sorry, Europe, you were late in ordering, don't come now with your demands, Prime Minister Boris Johnson de facto told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

This controversy risks of exploding again between the European Commission and AstraZeneca, but Eurocrats seem to avoid making it public this time. The European Commission declines to comment on the figures.

So does AstraZeneca, which only said that it is "working to increase productivity in its EU supply chain and to continue to make use of its global capability in order to achieve delivery of 180 million doses to the EU in the second quarter."

PRODUCTION ISSUES OF ALL VACCINE MANUFACTURERS

Laboratories and research facilities of pharma companies that managed to develop the first coronavirus vaccines worked very fast in initial stages, but bottlenecks have appeared once they had to transpose the process to manufacturing units around Europe and North America.

"This is the most delicate phase for a research team, that develops a new vaccine, using laboratory reactors and equipment, where they can produce tens of doses for research and testing activities. But once it comes to the industrialisation of the process, there is first a pilot phase where grams become kilos and then the proper creation of production lines in biopharma units that can organize massive production. There are difficulties and pitfalls at every stage of this hurdle race," Prof. Jean-Luc Gala, a virologist at Belgium's UCLouvain University, told Sputnik.

Another issue, he went on, is delivery of ingredients and raw materials coming from subcontractors. Here, issues also emerge, which can seriously slow down production.

"No doubt that the pharma companies do all they can to deliver stable doses to their customer, here the European Union, but problems happen, especially since the process is relatively new, at least for the RNA vaccines of Moderna and Pfizer. We can expect other delays but cross our fingers," Gala added.

All the three major Western vaccine developers have promised to catch up later. In a document published in German press, AstraZeneca is forecast to catch up with all the shortfalls by the end of September. The drug maker is supposed to supply a total of 300 million doses to the EU.

EU negotiators start to wonder if the announced deliveries will be honored on time, and whether pharma companies can be trusted.

In January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the idea that Russia was ready to deliver its Sputnik V to Europe, provided that the EU regulator green-lights the Russian vaccine, which was confirmed to be 91.6 percent effective (comparable to that of Pfizer and Moderna results) in a study published in the prestigious Lancet medical magazine. Merkel even said that she was open to producing the Russian vaccine in Germany.

European regulator EMA continues to study Sputnik V, being much criticized by EU member states for being incredibly slow, while others such as the UK, Russia or the US had faster systems of emergency approvals.

With the appearance of more dangerous virus variants, it is a race against the clock, to be able to vaccinate 60-70 percent of the adult population and obtain a global immunity that will reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Von der Leyen reluctantly acknowledged last week that Russia could make its first vaccine available to Europe. She could not help but make a vicious remark saying that she was surprised that Russia does not prioritize vaccination of its own population. Since the Russian proposal implies production under license in Europe, the remark is a good indicator of the arrogant attitude of the European Commission to its eastern neighbor.

Despite vaccine competition and delays, there has also been good news.

French pharma giant Sanofi, left behind in the vaccine race, and GSK launched a new phase 2 study of their COVID-19 vaccine candidate on Monday.

In addition, the French firm is going to produce millions of doses for Pfizer/BioNTech and offer its production unit in Lyon to another competitor, Johnson & Johnson.

"We had worked actively for the production of a Sanofi vaccine on this site of Marcy-l'Etoile. All the preparatory work had started upstream to prepare for a Sanofi vaccine production and today that work is not lost, which is what is gratifying. We'll produce under licence for Johnson & Johnson," a Sanofi representative told the French press this week.

According to Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson, the agreement with Johnson & Johnson testifies to Sanofi's determination to contribute to the collective effort to end this health crisis as quickly as possible" and to show solidarity.

This help is the main reason why Johnson & Johnson has announced it will be ready earlier than expected to deliver its first doses to Europe from its Belgian factory in April.

The pandemic thus has given rise to unexpected alliances of companies in the sector. Swiss pharma company Novartis, which is not yet in the vaccine race, is also preparing to produce for BioNTech.

For Sanofi, the effort to produce its own vaccine continues.

"Our top priority remains the manufacture of our own vaccine. If we do this with BioNTech or Johnson & Johnson, it is because we have made sure that we also have the capacity to produce our own vaccine," Thomas Triomphe, Sanofi Pasteur executive vice president, insists.

The Sanofi candidate had vanished from the list of most promising vaccines after interim results from Phase 1 and 2 trials showed a low immune response in elder adults.

Research on new coronavirus variants is also being done by all vaccine producers, who are bracing for a potential appearance of new, more dangerous mutants.

UK health authorities made a study public last week, indicating that the "British variant" was 30 percent more deadly and killing more senior citizens than the original strain. Hence the need to vaccinate as quickly as possible.

More than 90 percent of Britons over 70 years old have already received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

"This is a unique national achievement. But now is not the time to relax. The threat remains very real," Johnson warned.

The UK government has also managed to meet the preset target of 15 million vaccinations by mid-February. The British have set a target for everyone over the age of 50 to receive the first dose of the vaccine by the end of April. The number of new infections in the UK has been on the decline for several weeks

Some 26 percent of Britons over 18 million have received at least a first dose of one of three vaccines inoculated massively. In comparison, in France, this figure barely reaches 4 percent. At the same time, nearly 3 percent of French have received the two doses, more than in the UK.

In Germany, 3 million have been vaccinated.

This huge discrepancy prompted Alexander Gauland, the Alternative for Germany leader in the Bundestag, to blast the Merkel government and the European Commission.

"Great Britain is not only painfully demonstrating to the EU and Germany how to properly organize a vaccination campaign. The British government is now also giving its citizens a clear perspective of an end to the fateful confinement with a concrete opening strategy. Boris Johnson plans to lift all lockdown restrictions in the UK by June 21," Gauland told Sputnik.

According to the politician, the British "are doing many things right, while the German government is failing time and time again."

"Whether protecting risk groups, training health authorities, vaccination campaigns or rapid tests: the German Federal government has not successfully implemented any of these. The result in Germany is always new lockdown extensions and there is no end in sight. Johnson's exit plan is another slap in the face for those responsible in Brussels and Berlin," he argued.

Will Europe respect its vaccination plan and inoculate 70 percent of the adult population by the end of the summer? Difficult to say, but a part of the solution may be to work faster on authorizations for Johnson & Johnson and Sputnik V vaccines. Hungary has already shown its legendary independence by promptly rolling out the Russian and Chinese vaccines, to the dismay of the EU.

The world, meanwhile, has taken a step toward a global COVID-19 vaccination, as Ghana became the first country on Wednesday to receive a batch of free coronavirus vaccine doses through the COVAX initiative, a shot-sharing scheme behind the inoculation drive in poorer countries.