A senior MEP says the “race” to produce vaccines is “intensifying” and the EU is “gearing up to use all available tools to support it.”
Pascal Canfin, chair of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee, was speaking on Thursday at a hearing of the joint health and industry committees.
This brought together EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides and her colleague Thierry Breton, who heads up a vaccines task force, along with officials from the seven pharmaceutical companies that are currently producing vaccines for use in the EU.
All stressed the “unprecedented” speed at which COVID vaccines were developed but also spoke of the “difficulties” they face in mass production and logistics across Europe and beyond.
Canfin, who chaired the special hearing – ‘How to increase the capacity of COVID-19 vaccine production and improve delivery’ - said the European Parliament will “continue to push for faster vaccination efforts across Europe,” adding, “This was the point of this hearing.”
The French MEP said, “Parliament will play its role fully to win the vaccine deployment battle. The contact group put in place by the European Parliament and European Commission will further strengthen our role.”
“Parliament will play its role fully to win the vaccine deployment battle. The contact group put in place by the European Parliament and European Commission will further strengthen our role” Pascal Canfin, chair of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee
During the meeting MEPs quizzed representatives from AstraZeneca, Moderna, CureVac, Novavax, Pfizer and Sanofi, on how to remove obstacles to faster commercialisation, manufacture and distribution of vaccines.
Earlier on Thursday, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told EU leaders she would ban Coronavirus vaccines from leaving the EU if suppliers such as AstraZeneca fail to deliver.
The EU has been roundly criticised for the markedly slow roll out of vaccines, particularly compared with the UK.
At the parliamentary hearing, pharmaceutical industry representatives, during their presentations, sought to defend their companies from criticism that they have failed to honour contracts signed with the EU.
They highlighted the “challenge” of building production capacity for “entirely new and complex products” and the “international nature of supply chains.”
MEPs also argued that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) - which has also been attacked for its performance over the length of time it takes to approve vaccines - could speed up market approval at European level.
The hearing also heard that an EU export ban on vaccines could help Europe increase vaccine roll out compared to other countries that have introduced export bans.
“We need a clear signal that strong cooperation among the Commission, national authorities, multinationals and even smaller companies will overcome bottlenecks in supply. We are all partners and we are facing this challenge together" Martina Dlabajová, Renew Europe coordinator In the Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee
Renew Europe coordinator on Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee, Martina Dlabajová a Czech member, noted, "Our citizens need a transparent framework to trust the vaccination process, they deserve clear explanations over the supply outages we are facing today.”
She told the meeting, “We need a clear signal that strong cooperation among the Commission, national authorities, multinationals and even smaller companies will overcome bottlenecks in supply. We are all partners and we are facing this challenge together."
Further comment came from Romanian member Cristian Silviu Bușoi, Industry, Research and Energy Committee Chairman, who said, “Today’s challenge is about how to produce extremely complex products on a scale that is absolutely unprecedented. This is an industrial challenge.”
He said the special hearing was an “exercise in democratic accountability. We wanted to know where the production bottlenecks are and to have a clear picture about the industry’s commitments and obligations. But we also want to help the industry deliver the doses, because our priority is to get vaccination done”.
A statement by the European Parliament’s Socialists S&D Group called for “all pharmaceutical companies to increase the production of vaccines and look at future challenges with new variants and strains.”
It adds, “Current shortfalls, notably with AstraZeneca but also to an extent with other manufacturers, not only question pharmaceuticals production capacity, but also the way we should adapt EU strategy, especially when companies fail to deliver on agreed commitments.”
S&D coordinator in the ENVI committee, Jytte Guteland, said, “Since the very beginning of the vaccination campaign in Europe, we have heard questionable excuses from pharmaceutical companies trying to justify their failure to respect agreed commitments and live up to EU citizens’ expectations.”
“Since the very beginning of the vaccination campaign in Europe, we have heard questionable excuses from pharmaceutical companies trying to justify their failure to respect agreed commitments and live up to EU citizens’ expectations” Jytte Guteland, S&D coordinator in the ENVI committee
“This is not acceptable. Europe has paid for these vaccines in advance with public money and we demand that companies respect the agreements. Every single day of delay is a failure for our health and the economic recovery.”
She added, “In the specific case of AstraZeneca, a shortfall of a magnitude above 60 percent of agreed quotas from December 2020 until end of the first quarter 2021 is unjustifiable, especially if the doses produced in the EU are exported to the UK.”
A parliament spokesman said “The aim was to have an open discussion with the CEOs of the pharmaceutical industry, the Commission and other stakeholders on how to overcome impediments to speedier commercialisation, manufacturing, distribution and equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Elsewhere it was reported on Friday that the EMA will recommend Johnson & Johnson’s Coronavirus vaccine early next month. Approval is expected on 11 March. This would pave the way for authorisation of a fourth Covid-19 vaccine, alongside those from Moderna, AstraZeneca and a partnership of Pfizer and BioNTech.
EU leaders met remotely on Thursday to discuss the roll out and, afterwards, Portugal’s prime minister Antonio Costa said he hoped a vaccine passport, allowing people to travel freely if they can prove they have been vaccinated, will be in place by the summer.