Italy seeks national production of Covid mRNA vaccines

Italy has held talks with several manufacturers about starting production of mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines in the country, in the latest sign that EU officials want to deepen those supplies compared to other types of vaccines.

Rome has discussed domestic production of mRNA-based vaccines with US biotech Moderna, Novartis in Switzerland and ReiThera in Italy, people familiar with the matter said.

Recent discussions with Novartis and ReiThera have included the possibility of producing the mRNA vaccine developed by CureVac in Italy in Germany, two people said.

Basel-based Novartis has signed a first agreement with CureVac in March to manufacture part of the company’s coronavirus vaccine. The coup is still in phase 3 of the trials, but the German biotech said this week he hopes the vaccine will be approved for use in the EU in May or June. ReiThera has its own adenovirus-based jab in development, but it’s still in Phase 2 trials.

Talks between Novartis, ReiThera and the Italian government were at an early stage, people said, and might not lead to a final deal. Novartis, ReiThera and CureVac all declined to comment.

In addition, Mario Draghi, Italian Prime Minister, spoke directly with Moderna’s general manager, Stéphane Bancel, other people familiar with the matter said. The talks collapsed, the people said, because Moderna lacked the capacity to oversee the transfer of necessary technology to Italian manufacturing sites or to equip those sites with the expertise to increase production.

Moderna declined to comment. He previously highlighted the general lack of qualified vaccine personnel as a constraint to expanding manufacturing.

Italy’s effort to secure domestic production of mRNA-based Covid vaccines, which use new technology to deliver the vaccine into the body, comes as the EU appears to move away from adenovirus-based vaccines produced by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Several European countries have restricted or stopped the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after the European Medicines Agency found a causal link with a very rare side effect involving blood clots. The rollout of J&J, a similar type of vaccine, has also been delayed as US and European officials explore a possible link.

EU member states feel stung by their relationship with AstraZeneca, in particular, which has also failed to meet its delivery targets, repeatedly downgrading its supply projections to the block.

“We need to focus now on proven technologies,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday. “MNA vaccines are a clear example.” Brussels is currently in talks with BioNTech / Pfizer, which produces one of the main mRNA vaccines, for an agreement of up to 1.8 billion doses in 2022-2023.

There is no indication that the doses manufactured in Italy would be reserved for the country alone. Rather, they would strengthen European manufacturing capacity and be used to execute current and future vaccine purchase agreements negotiated by Brussels on behalf of EU member states.

A commission official said that Brussels welcomed “Rome’s commitment to vaccine production” and was aware of contacts between Italian authorities and companies. Measures taken by EU member states to boost vaccine production were “complementary” to similarly-led efforts targeted by the commission and coordinated regularly, the official added.

Struggles to export vaccines and the growing acceptance that people might need annual booster vaccines have increased incentives for politicians to increase domestic production. Last month, Draghi said the EU’s ability to produce its own vaccines was now as important as military spending.

“People talk a lot about strategic autonomy, often
reference to defense, security, the single market, ”he said. “I
believe that the first strategic autonomy today should be that of vaccines.

Giancarlo Giorgetti, Minister of Economic Development who would be in charge of any new manufacturing, also said that Italy and the EU must “guarantee us self-sufficiency in terms of
vaccine production ”.

An Italian official, however, said Rome was focusing on
vaccine supply for this year and meet daily immunization goals
rather than longer term plans. The Department of Economic Development declined to comment, as did the Department of Health.

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Berlin and Hannah Kuchler in London

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