After weeks in defence mode over its vaccine strategy, the European Commission continues to stay true to its plans, while stepping up its actions on preparing for new COVID-19 strains.
In a joint press conference with the Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen this week launched a new EU-level initiative to finally put the EU on the front foot in its fight against the coronavirus and its rapidly mutating strains.
The new bio-defence preparedness plan, known as the HERA Incubator, is set to bring together key stakeholders from science, industry and public authorities in the EU and around the world to study and prevent the spread of new mutant variants such as those identified in the UK, South Africa, or Brazil. In addition, those participating in the initiative are to assist in the adaption of existing vaccines, the speeding up of their approval process, and the scaling up of the critical manufacturing capacities – the current Achilles heel of the EU’s vaccine drive.
In all, the HERA Incubator will be supported with at least €75 million in EU funding for new specialised tests on variants and the stepping up of genomic sequencing to reach a 5% target. Moreover, the Commission will also launch a “VACCELERATE COVID-19” clinical trial network to bring together 16 Member States and five associated countries, including Switzerland and Israel, to exchange trial data and slowly include children and young adults as participants in clinical studies.
Meanwhile, in response to the shortfalls in manufacturing capacity reported by all the pharma companies in recent weeks, the Commission announced that it would step up coordination with manufacturers to help addressing different production bottlenecks and develop a “voluntary” licensing mechanism. While the various companies have agreed different licensing agreements in recent weeks to increase their capacities for Q2 onwards, the effect remains to be seen.
While both Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca continue to be behind on their scheduled deliveries to EU countries, the Commission this week also announced a new purchasing agreement with Moderna for an additional 300 million doses. According to the contract, 150 million will be delivered in 2021, with an option for a further 150 million in 2022. Importantly, as EU countries may already be in the final stages of their vaccination drives by the time the extra doses arrive, the agreement also provides for the possibility to have them donated directly and separately from the COVAX initiative to lower and middle-income countries.
In yet another twist in the weeks-long saga between the Commission and AstraZeneca over the latter’s initial refusal to deliver its contractually obliged doses, the Commission on Thursday was somewhat vindicated when US media outlet CNN revealed the UK Government’s contract (download) with the pharma giant.
Initially, both the UK Government and AstraZeneca justified their nearly 60% drop in deliveries to the EU, while UK deliveries remained unaffected, by the UK having signed its contract “much earlier” than the EU and that AstraZeneca had only committed to making “best reasonable efforts.”
In what is set to raise further serious questions about AstraZeneca’s commitments to its contractual obligations and relationship to the UK Government, the unearthed UK contract show that not only does it include the same wording on “best reasonable efforts,” but was, in fact, only signed on 28 August 2020 – one day after AstraZeneca signed its contract with the European Commission.