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COVID-19 vaccine supply issues could force EU to rethink inoculation strategy

Suban Abdulla
·3-min read
Immunisation Nurse Debbie Briody prepares the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine prior to administration, at the NHS Louisa Jordan temporary hospital at the SEC Campus in Glasgow, Scotland on January 23, 2021. (Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP) (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)
European countries have administered more than five million doses to citizens so far. The bloc aims to inoculate 70% of adults by the end of August this year. Photo: Andy Buchanan / AFP via Getty Images

Problems with the coronavirus vaccine supply and production issues may force the European Union (EU) to rethink its inoculation programme.

EU’s mountain of woes keeps growing. AstraZeneca (AZN.L) delivered a fresh blow on Friday after announcing that it plans to cut deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The reduction will see deliveries to the EU cut by 60% to 31 million doses in the first quarter of the year. It blamed production problems, meaning the number of initial available doses would be lower than expected.

The Swedish-British firm was expected to deliver around 80 million doses to the 27 EU nations by the end of March.

Last week US pharmaceutical company Pfizer (PFE), who collaborated with German BioNTech (BNTX) made a similar announcement. The drugmaker said that it would be temporarily slowing distribution to the EU and retooling a site in Belgium to boost output.

On Sunday, European Council president Charles Michel said that the bloc will make pharmaceutical firms “respect contracts” they have signed for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte accused AstraZeneca of a “serious contractual violation” and said that he would weigh “all legal steps.” Poland has also raised the threat of taking legal action.

READ MORE: AstraZeneca to cut COVID-19 vaccine delivery to EU by 60%

Troubles at a production plant in Belgium where the AstraZeneca vaccine is produced will push the Dutch government to reevaluate its COVID-19 vaccination strategy as further delays loom.

AstraZeneca’s reduced supply means that the Netherlands will get 920,000 doses rather than the planned 2.3 million.

“Which ever way you look at it, you are going to have put the vaccine puzzle together again,” Ben van der Zeijst, former head of the Dutch vaccine institute, told the BBC.

Speaking on the gap between the first dose and the second dose of the vaccine, he said that currently the Netherlands plans a “12 weeks gap, which could be easily stretched to 24 weeks.”

He added that the plan “was to vaccinate an awful lot of people with this vaccine” which the Dutch government earmarked as the main vaccine for those under 60 years of age.

A spokesman for the Dutch health ministry said that officials are due to hold discussions about the first quarter delivery schedule.

READ MORE: Pfizer supply woes for Europe as UK steers ahead with vaccination

While the coronavirus vaccines have been developed and approved across the globe at record speeds, distribution and deliveries have been slower to EU nations.

European countries have administered more than five million doses to citizens so far. The bloc aims to inoculate 70% of adults by the end of August this year.

Astrazeneca’s jab developed in coordination with Oxford University is already in widespread use in Britain but the bloc has yet to approve the jab, but is expected to make a decision by 29 January.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania urged the European Medicines Agency to expedite regulatory approval of AstraZeneca’s jab. The three countries said on Twitter (TWTR) that “precision of procedures matters. But so does speed. The delays cost lives.”

So far, the EU has approved vaccines made by Pfizer /BioNTech and Moderna (MRNA).

The bloc has also been grappling with ways to manage rising cases and the emergence of several more contagious mutations.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the creation of new “dark red” zones to designate hotspots. Those hotspot could could be subjected to stricter travel measures, such as quarantines and mandatory negative test results.

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