BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union governments are intensifying pressure on Pfizer and other COVID-19 vaccine makers to renegotiate contracts, warning millions of shots that are no longer needed could go to waste, according to EU officials and a document.
During the most acute phase of the pandemic, the European Commission and EU governments agreed to buy huge volumes of vaccines, mostly from Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, amid fears of insufficient supplies.
But with the pandemic abating in Europe and amid a marked slowdown in vaccinations, many countries are now urging tweaks to contracts to reduce supplies and consequently cut their spending on vaccines.
The matter was discussed on Tuesday at a meeting of EU health ministers in Luxembourg, although the Commission remained cautious on what could be achieved.
Poland, which is the leading country in this attempt to revise contracts, has more than 30 million COVID vaccines in stock and would need to buy another 70 million under existing agreements, a Polish diplomat told Reuters, urging changes to avoid waste.
Poland has a population of about 38 million, with about 60% fully vaccinated, not including boosters – against over 70% in the EU.
In a letter sent to the Commission earlier in June, and seen by Reuters, the Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski together with his counterparts from Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania urged a “reduction of the amounts” of vaccines being ordered.
They said the contracts were agreed when it was impossible to predict how the pandemic would develop, and they should now be changed as the situation is improving.
During a public session of Tuesday’s EU health ministers’ meeting, Slovakia said it supported the letter. Other countries, including Cyprus and Malta, urged caution as pandemic conditions could change again.
‘CONTRACTS MUST BE HONOURED’
Pfizer and Moderna, which is another top supplier of COVID vaccines to the EU, have agreed to postpone some deliveries.
However, the ministers said in their joint letter, referring only to the tweaks agreed with Pfizer, that they were “an insufficient solution and only delay the problem”.
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told Tuesday’s public session that the Commission would work to further extend deliveries beyond this year and excess doses could be needed in the future.
But she added: “Contracts must be honoured”, adding the EU “cannot unilaterally change the terms of the contracts”.
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in May that EU countries would likely lose any legal case brought against suppliers.
There is currently no legal case, officials said.
A spokesperson for Pfizer declined to comment on the letter, but reiterated the changes already made to the contract to adapt delivery schedules.
“We witness excessive burden on state budgets, combined with delivery of unnecessary amounts of vaccines,” the joint letter said, adding: “There is a high probability that doses supplied to the European Union might end up being disposed of”.
Last year, several eastern European states had to receive emergency Pfizer doses, initially destined to other EU states, because they under-ordered the vaccine and preferred AstraZeneca’s cheaper shots, whose deliveries were vastly reduced due to production problems.
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