Vaccinations increase divide between affluent nations and poorer countries as roll-out continues across the world.
European Union member states will not be permitted to negotiate separate vaccine deals with pharmaceutical companies, in parallel to the bloc’s efforts as a whole, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.
She told reporters at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels that the 27-member bloc would continue to work as one to secure vaccine doses from suppliers.
“The only framework we are negotiating in is as 27,” she said. “We do this together and no member state on this legal binding basis is allowed to negotiate in parallel or to have a contract in parallel.”
Von der Leyen’s comments came amid reports that some EU countries have tried to secure separate deals with vaccine manufacturers and as she announced the European Commission – the EU’s executive branch – had reached a deal with Pfizer and BioNTech for 300 million additional doses of their COVID-19 vaccine.
That move allows EU governments to double their orders from Pfizer to 600 million doses, as the bloc races to inoculate its 450 million people.
Combined with a contract with Moderna for its vaccine, the EU now has the capacity to vaccinate 380 million people, von der Leyen said, more than 80 percent of the EU’s population.
The EU commission later said in a statement it offered to member states to buy an additional 200 million doses of the vaccine, with the option to acquire another 100 million doses.
“This would enable the EU to purchase up to 600 million doses of this vaccine, which is already being used across the EU. The additional doses will be delivered starting in the second quarter of 2021,” the EU said.
Von der Leyen said 75 million of the extra doses would be available during the second quarter, with the rest being delivered throughout 2021.
Doses are usually shared among EU states in proportion to their population, but it is unclear whether all governments will make orders based on the new contract.
The European Commission negotiates vaccine contracts on behalf of EU member states and, as of Friday, had sealed contracts for more than two billion doses with Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Janssen Pharmaceutica NV, Pfizer-BioNTech and CureVac.
Only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use so far in the bloc.
But there has been growing criticism, in Germany for instance, about the decision to let the commission handle vaccine purchases for all EU members.
Germany said on Monday it had agreed with BioNTech to supply 30 million additional doses in a side deal, although the timing of the delivery is unclear.
The German move agreed in September – but revealed only this week as the government faced pressures at home – appeared to be in contrast with EU rules.
But Germany has said its agreement with BioNTech does not affect contracts between the company and the EU.
Meanwhile, the health minister of Portugal, which holds the six-month EU presidency, said separately on Friday any side deals for COVID-19 vaccines by EU countries cannot undermine the bloc’s joint orders.
Health Minister Marta Temido told reporters the EU should strive for as much of a joint approach to combating the coronavirus pandemic – including on vaccine purchases – as possible.
That did not rule out member states taking further steps on their own if they deem them necessary, she said, but stressed that any vaccine side deals “couldn’t run any risk” to what was already agreed under joint purchases.
Vaccination programmes in the EU have gotten off to a slow start, and some member states have been quick to blame the European Commission for a perceived failure to deliver the right number of doses.
The EU has defended its strategy, insisting vaccination programmes have just started and large deliveries are foreseen for around April.
On Friday, the EU’s drug agency approved doctors drawing up to six doses from each vial of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, instead of five, a move that could speed up the pace of vaccinations in the bloc.
The change is expected to come into effect immediately, boosting available doses of the vaccine by 20 percent.
Many doctors across the EU have already been drawing six doses of the vaccine from each vial, a practice that is already permitted in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Pharmaceutical companies regularly put more vaccine than necessary into vials so the minimum dosage can be ensured even if there is some spillage.