Ciancio’s comments come with the EU struggling to combat criticism of its handling of the Coronavirus vaccine rollout. In comparison to the EU, the UK has vaccinated nearly half its population while one in five Americans have had a jab.
He told MEPs, “In Europe we are strengthening our ability to identify these variants but we are not yet there.”
“In order to control the variants one of the main things we have to do is increase existing public health measures and increase the rate of vaccination and protect the most vulnerable as soon as possible.”
“If health measures are strengthened and there is optimal vaccination then I am confident we will see a significant decrease in mortality.”
Ciancio was speaking on the day it emerged that several Member States, including France, Ireland, Germany and Italy, had suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine over safety concerns.
It has been reported that the vaccine may lead to an increased risk of blood clots developing.
AstraZeneca, along with the World Health Organization and the European Medicine Agency, have pointedly downplayed any risk although the EMA was due to report further on the issue later on Tuesday.
Addressing members of Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee on the efficacy of vaccines against mutations of the COVID-19 virus, Ciancio insisted, “Regardless of which variant is circulating we must not change our strategy and continue to vaccinate the most vulnerable at first.”
“But we must move faster, faster, faster and protect the highest number of people as soon as possible.”
He told the committee there are eight variants of most concern, each of which are more transmissible than the initial virus, in some cases up to 70 percent more so.
He added, “But all are responding to the same public health measures already taken - and also the current vaccines - as the ‘normal’ virus and this is an important message I want to stress.”
The meeting also heard that most Member States are falling short on tracking Coronavirus variants with only seven of the 27 having increased genome sequencing to the level recommended for detecting and monitoring the emergence and dominance of these strains.
“Regardless of which variant is circulating we must not change our strategy and continue to vaccinate the most vulnerable at first. But we must move faster, faster, faster and protect the highest number of people as soon as possible” Bruno Ciancio, ECDC
Ciancio focused on the three “main” variants: the 24,000 cases of the UK variant which, he said, is now present in all EU countries; the 900 cases of the South African variant, present in 18 EU countries and the 200 cases of the Brazilian variant in nine EU countries.
Studies, he said, show that vaccines approved in the EU are demonstrating high efficiency against Coronavirus variants although, so far, BioNtech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and the Johnson&Johnson vaccines are the only jabs approved in the EMA.
The meeting heard that all viruses - including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 - evolve over time and these changes are called “mutations.”
A virus with one or more new mutations is referred to as a “variant” of the original virus. The ECDC’s latest risk assessment states that variants are more easily transmitted and more severe.
Existing licensed COVID-19 vaccines may therefore be only partially effective or significantly less effective against a variant, it was said.
For this reason, Ciancio said the risk associated with the further spread of COVID-19 is currently assessed as “high to very high.”
Further comment came from Marco Cavaleri, head of the European Medicine Agency's (EMA) vaccine evaluation team and chair of the EMA’s COVID-19 Emergency Task Force.
Asked by several members about the current uncertainty surrounding the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, he said, “We have received the necessary data from the UK and we are now going through a rapid review. But I don’t think there is any evidence as yet that shows there is a risk from this vaccine and I see no problem continuing with this vaccine.”
He said, “In the face of emerging variants, a key question is how rapidly can we at the EMA approve new versions of vaccines. We have issued a reflection paper on this but, very importantly, a number of vaccines have still not been approved and are currently under development. Generally, I agree that we have to work to speed up the manufacture of vaccines.”
Dr Katherine O’Brien, of the department of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals Director at the WHO, also spoke and agreed that the three main variants, the UK, South African and Brazilian versions, were “of concern.”
She said, “It is also important to say we need a coordinated approach when it comes to the impact of vaccines on variants.”
In reply to a query from German EPP member Peter Liese, O’Brien said she was not in favour of people being tested before they are vaccinated “because this puts up another barrier to people being vaccinated and we do not need that.”
“In the face of emerging variants, a key question is how rapidly can we at the EMA approve new versions of vaccines … Generally, I agree that we have to work to speed up the manufacture of vaccines” Marco Cavaleri, EMA
On the Covax vaccine global sharing scheme, she said, “The initial goal of this was to protect those most at risk but, of course, all this depends on resources being available to ensure there are sufficient supplies.
“Europe, though, has been an extraordinary supporter of Covax and we have seen a rapid scaling up of vaccines going to certain countries.”
She said that according to the WHO, COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed or already approved are expected to provide at least some protection against new variants of the virus.
In the event that any of these vaccines prove to be less effective against one or more variants, the composition of the vaccines can be adapted to protect against these variants.
Liese, who is also a medical doctor, said it was vital to “speed up vaccination”, adding “we also need to speak about an export ban because that is what some other countries are doing.”
Directing his question to Katherine O’Brien, he said, “Please have a word with the UK and tell them we need better cooperation because, currently, they are doing the opposite.”
“For them it is all about putting the UK first, just as is the case with the US where it is all about the US first.”
Several MEPs expressed their concerns regarding fast-spreading variants, especially given that the vaccination rate across the EU remains lower than expected.
They also lamented the lack of data available on the efficacy of administered vaccines.
Certain Member States have a low or no capacity to analyse virus samples - “genomic sequencing” - many MEPs said, which means the spread of variants and their impact cannot be adequately monitored.
Members also quizzed the experts on the authorisation process for updated vaccines, the role of vaccination certificates and the safety and side effects of existing vaccines.
Swedish Socialist member Jyette Guteland said she was worried about those pharma companies “which have not complied with their agreements with the EU” on vaccine production, adding, “This is not acceptable and has damaged the vaccine campaign.”
Romanian EPP deputy Cristian Bușoi complained about “a lack of data on new variants”, while French Renew Europe member Véronique Trillet-Lenoir warned that a rise in new cases in Europe will result in “an overload again of our health systems.”
She said, “We are also likely to see a whole crop of new strains. The current policy is for vaccines to be given based on population size, but as the number of variants rise we may have to make different arrangements.”
French ID member Joëlle Mélin said, “As long as we still don’t know exactly how all this started we won’t be able to deal with the variants.”
Committee chair, French Renew Europe member Pascal Canfin revealed that he was unable to provide details of a meeting last week of the new Coronavirus “contact group”, comprising MEPs and officials from the Commission and Parliament.
He said, “The discussions cannot be made public so I cannot share today what was discussed. That is the rule.”
He also said, “we need more certainty about the efficacy of vaccines.”
During the meeting, Commission Deputy Director-General for Health Pierre Delsaux gave details on the HERA Incubator, a project designed to monitor variants, exchange data and cooperate on adapting vaccines.
The Commission has proposed to amend the current regulatory procedure in order to allow for COVID-19 vaccines that are adapted to new variants to be approved more quickly.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Commission and BioNTech-Pfizer said they had come to an agreement on the “accelerated delivery” of 10 million doses.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “I know how critical quarter two is for the rollout of our vaccination strategies in the Member States. These accelerated 10 million doses will bring the total doses of BioNTech/Pfizer in quarter tqo up to over 200 million.”
“This is very good news. It gives Member States room to manoeuvre and possibly fill gaps in deliveries.”
The doses will, she said, be drawn forward from the option of 100 million doses in the second BioNTech/Pfizer contract, foreseen for later in 2021.
The Commission has also said that it agrees with recent statements by several Member States that the most equitable solution for the allocation of doses of vaccines is on the basis of a pro rata of population of each EU country.
A Commission spokesman said, “This is the solution that the Commission proposed for all Advance Purchase Agreements. It is a fair solution as the virus strikes equally everywhere, in all parts of the EU.”
He said, “Member States decided to depart from the Commission's proposal by adding a flexibility which allows agreeing on a different distribution of doses, taking into account the epidemiological situation and the vaccination needs of each country.”
Under this system, if a Member State decides not to take up its pro rata allocation, doses are redistributed among the other interested EU nations.”
“Member states have used this system to modify the pro rata allocation proposed by the Commission under all 6 Advance Purchase Agreements. It would be up to the Member States to find an agreement if they wished to return to the pro rata basis.”