A row has arisen between EU member states over the allocation of coronavirus vaccines in the latest fallout from worsening supply shortages to AstraZeneca in the bloc.
The leaders of a group of European states have written to the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission to complain about “huge disparities” in vaccine allocations between member states. The letter, which was signed by Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Slovenia, calls for a debate at the leadership level.
However, other Member States replied that the six Member States complain about the unfavorable results of their own purchasing decisions. The commission defended the system, saying dose allocation followed a “transparent process”.
The EU is grappling with the consequences of a new round of shortages in AstraZeneca deliveries as it struggles to get its vaccination campaign back on track. The Anglo-Swedish company has confirmed to member states that it will deliver only 30 million doses in the first quarter of the year, less than the 40 million expected. That number in itself represented a significant reduction from the 100m or more shots the EU had initially expected at the end of March.
The company says it now plans to deliver just 70 million doses in the second quarter of the year, down from 180 million. This is partly due to the fact that it has not been able to source from outside the EU due to export restrictions applied worldwide.
The delivery shortfalls have once again drawn attention to the systems for distributing vaccines among member states under the auspices of the EU’s vaccine procurement strategy. Current dispute centers around distribution of expedited delivery of 4m BioNTech / Pfizer dosesdiplomats have said as member states scramble to get vaccines as quickly as possible.
While all EU countries are entitled to pro-rated population shares for each vaccine purchased by the European Commission, they can choose to purchase more or less of each vaccine as they see fit. Unused shares can then be bought by other Member States.
A number of countries decided earlier in the process to weight their portfolios according to the AstraZeneca jab and buy fewer BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna products, the first two to receive EU regulatory approval. They are now behind on deliveries due to AstraZeneca’s production issues.
The initial reasons they opted for AstraZeneca included the fact that the company had a large international supply network and its vaccine seemed likely to hit the market quickly, said a diplomat from a country that bet on the spot. Other attractions are that the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is much cheaper than the other two and does not require the very low temperature storage they require.
“At the time of procurement, they appeared to be the fastest developing and [to have] the greatest capacity, ”the diplomat said of AstraZeneca.
But the consequence of AstraZeneca’s supply problems is that these countries have so far received proportionately fewer vaccines than the Member States weighted in favor of Pfizer and Moderna.
In their letter, the six countries complained that vaccine deliveries “are not implemented on an equal basis according to the prorated population key,” adding: “If this system were to continue, it would continue to create. and exacerbate huge disparities among Members. By this summer, some would be able to gain collective immunity in a matter of weeks, while others would be far behind. “
Sebastian Kurz, Austrian Chancellor and one of the signatories, tweeted that if the current distribution continued, “it would result in significant unequal treatment – which we must prevent.”
However, the committee said it was the member states themselves who had agreed to allow the pro rata of the population allocation system favored by Brussels. “It would be up to the Member States to find an agreement if they wished to return pro rata base, ”he says.
There is “total transparency between member states as to who gets what” on vaccines, since allocations are decided by a purchasing steering committee on which they all sit, an EU official said.
Countries that have switched to Pfizer over AstraZeneca and are enjoying the benefits in the form of faster deliveries are likely to look askance at efforts to reshuffle the distribution key.
“Some countries did not buy all they could. They chose a different strategy betting on other vaccines that are cheaper and easier to transport to be available to them, ”said an EU diplomat. “It is not fair and it has nothing to do with solidarity to change the allowance system as has been agreed. It would not be fair to those who for months have been enforcing strong measures and the lockdown.
The question of the vaccine strategy should be debated at an upcoming European summit on March 25 and 26.