Frustration is mounting from Europe to North America over reduced shipments of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine while the United States pharmaceutical company increases production capacity at its Belgian plant.
Governments say it is costing critical time during the early stages of the roll-out to care homes and hospital personnel.
Italy has threatened legal action, the leader of Canada’s most populous province said Pfizer’s chief executive should be chased “with a firecracker” and a top European Union official icily invoked the principle of “pacta sunt servanda”, a Latin phrase meaning “agreements must be kept”.
The EU and many other nations are under pressure for what is seen as a slow start to their vaccination campaigns compared with countries like Israel and the United Kingdom.
Pfizer compounded the problem last Friday when it announced a temporary reduction in deliveries so it could upscale its Puurs, Belgium plant, which supplies all shots delivered outside the US.
The delay, which the pharma giant said would last a few weeks, affects not only the number of people who can get inoculated during that period but also throws off the careful choreography that governments mapped out to get elderly residents and caregivers the required two doses within a strict timetable of several weeks.
“It means huge complications for us,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.
“We were all surprised by the announcement of Pfizer-BioNTech to have a delay,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The EU now expects Pfizer to deliver across the 27-nation bloc 92 percent of what was expected over this week and the next one. The missing 8 percent is expected to be recovered during the week of February 15.
A number of US states also are reporting difficulty getting their hands on enough vaccines.
In Europe, the harsh criticism of Pfizer stands in sharp contrast to the accolades the company received last month for being exceptionally fast in producing a COVID-19 vaccine considered safe and effective.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first vaccine authorised for use in the UK, the EU and the US.
Pfizer told The Associated Press news agency on Wednesday any small step backwards taken now would result in a huge jump ahead later in the year. The company originally expected to produce 1.3 billion doses this year.
“We’ve explored innovative ways to increase the number of doses we’re able to supply this year, and we now believe that we can potentially deliver approximately two billion doses by the end of 2021,” the company said in a statement.
But even if that point is understood, many officials in Europe said they were disappointed by what they saw as a lack of smooth communication.
“The problem lies mainly with Pfizer’s short notice announcement,” German health minister Jens Spahn said. “That’s an upsetting issue.
“I understand the reason that [plants] have to be converted in the short term to increase capacity in the medium and long term. But it’s very unsatisfying that this was … communicated to us basically overnight.”