02 Feb 2021   |   News

EU’s lead COVID-19 vaccines negotiator defends contracts

Commission’s Sandra Gallina says spending more on advance purchase agreements would not have avoided the current supply problems, after days of criticism of the bloc's centralised procurement scheme

Sandra Gallina

Head of the Commission's health directorate DG SANTE, Sandra Gallin. Photo: EU Commission.

The European Commission's lead official on COVID-19 vaccine contracts hit back on Monday at suggestions that slow negotiations and penny-pinching were partly to blame for a shortfall in vaccine supplies in Europe. 

EU member states are far behind Israel, the UK and the US in rolling out vaccines, but the blame is squarely on slower than promised deliveries, rather than negotiating shortcomings, said the head of the Commission's health directorate DG SANTE, Sandra Gallina.

“We definitely would not have obtained more doses with more money,” Gallina told the Parliament budget committee. “I think the prices we have paid are fully justified. The problem ... is manufacturing."

MEPs picked holes in the €2.4 billion vaccines strategy, saying negotiations had not gone fast enough, and that Brussels should have spent more money to secure doses sooner.

“EU is the lilliputter [small one] for investment into vaccine development,” compared with the UK and US, said Johan Van Overtveldt, chair of Parliament’s budget committee. “I don’t have the impression we have done enough.”

As with the UK and US, the EU made advance purchase agreements for vaccines whilst they were still in clinical trials, enabling companies to invest in manufacturing capacity in advance of knowing if their products would be approved. Given this, “It’s paradoxical for the budget committee to ask me to pay more,” Gallina said.

MEPs also called into question the procurement skills of DG Sante, asking whether EU contracts are binding on vaccine makers, as officials have argued over the last week. The main source of friction is the Commission’s contract with AstraZeneca, which was published in a redacted form on Friday, showing the company was bound to make "best reasonable efforts" to deliver on schedule.

For Van Overtveldt, it is “hard to define the 42 pages as a contract. This is more a declaration of good intentions,” he said.

EU officials have gone in hard on AstraZeneca, accusing it of a lack of transparency after the pharma company said it could only fulfil 25% of expected deliveries to the EU in the first quarter of 2021, due to production problems at the Belgian contract manufacturing facility.

EU officials are annoyed the company refused to make good on the shortages by importing from the UK. In response the European Commission has put in place what it calls a targeted “transparency and authorisation mechanism”, under which individual member states could stop COVID-19 vaccines being exported outside the EU. The measure is limited to those vaccines for which the EU has agreed advance purchase agreements.

The much-criticised episode has descended into a bruising blame game that has pitted the EU against AstraZeneca, and saw the Commission announcing it was to put checks on the Northern Ireland border to prevent vaccines produced in the EU from reaching the UK.

The measure, which threatened to undermine painstaking diplomacy to ensure Brexit did not result in a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, was swiftly withdrawn late last Friday, with the Commission saying it was “a mistake”.

Following negotiations over the weekend, AstraZeneca will now supply 40 million further doses in the first quarter of 2021 and make the first deliveries a week earlier than previously expected. However, is still only about half of what should have been delivered if manufacturing scale up had gone to plan.

Van Overtveldt said that spending more to get faster deals with manufacturers would have been a small price to pay compared to the cost of economies under lockdowns.

The EU signed the deal with AstraZeneca in August for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more. The contract was agreed three months after the UK government signed a similar deal with the pharma company, but work to scale up manufacture of the adenoviral vectored vaccine began in the two UK facilities that are producing the raw material before that, in February 2020.  

The EU has “lost a lot of support and trust in the last few days,” said Rasmus Andresen, a Green MEP.

Gallina strongly denied that the EU is trailing the world’s vaccine rollout pacesetters. “I’ve no envy for Israel. I’m not jealous of what [US President Joe] Biden is doing – we’re better than US [on COVID],” Gallina said.

Commission officials have come under extraordinary pressure to deliver vaccines, as new variants of the virus continue to evolve and the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital in many countries reaches crisis levels.

The EU has put money into advance purchase agreements for six vaccines, and will add two made by French biotech Valneva and US biotech Novavax to its portfolio soon, Gallina said.

“Six contracts [negotiated] in less than six months – doing it in that speed is not necessarily easy,” said Gallina. The Commission will have secured 2.3 billion COVID-19 shots by end of 2022.

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