On 4 January, an 82-year-old Briton became the first person in the world outside clinical trials to receive the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
The UK has already delivered over a million dozes of the Pfizer- BioNTech vaccine and is generally seen as setting the pace around the world in the approval and use of Covid vaccines.
But, on the day the UK rolled out its second vaccine, some EU member states, including the Netherlands, were yet to vaccinate a single person with the Pfizer jab. Belgium has done some ‘testing’ of the Pfizer vaccine but did not start its roll out proper until 5 January, when care home residents began receiving shots.
The commission has signed deals with AstraZeneca (400 million doses), Sanofi-GSK (300 million doses), Johnson and Johnson (400 million doses), Pfizer (300 million doses), CureVac (405 million doses) and Moderna (160 million doses).
The EU executive has also concluded exploratory talks with the pharmaceutical company Novavax with a view to purchasing up to 200 million doses.
But the commission has faced fierce criticism about its vaccine strategy, with the EU accused of being too slow in its vaccination roll out programme.
BioNtech itself has criticised the EU’s failure to order more doses of its Coronavirus vaccine, saying it is now racing with its US partner, Pfizer, to boost production amid fears of a European gap left by the lack of other approved vaccines.
Ugur Sahin, head of the German biotech firm, told the German press that the order process in Europe “certainly did not go as fast and smooth as it did with other countries”.
“Our philosophy has always been to have a diverse portfolio of different vaccine. You have to remember that the orders were placed at a time of great uncertainty about whether any of the vaccines would actually be safe or effective” European Commission spokesman
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first to be approved by the bloc in late December, after already being accepted by the UK, Canada and the US. They and other countries have also since approved the Moderna or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, leaving the EU trailing behind in approvals.
Sahin said BioNTech aimed to get a new manufacturing plant up and running in Marburg, Germany next month, “far earlier than planned”. It should be able to produce 250 million doses in the first half of 2021.
The commission says the problem is not so much about numbers of vaccine doses it has secured but, rather, is all about addressing current “production capacity” at those pharmaceutical companies that have developed vaccines.
The EU executive says it is cooperating with these companies to see how things can be improved “in terms of their production capacity.”
The EU has ordered about two billion doses of vaccines from the six different companies. Pfizer has said the EU should have received 12.5 million doses of the 300 million ordered by the end of 2020 yet, even so, strong criticism of a perceived slow EU roll out continues.
Some positive news came on 6 January when the Moderna vaccine was approved for use by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
But there is still a feeling that he EU has been too slow and, as the BioNtech CEO suggested, has also not ordered enough vaccines.
A commission spokesman however strongly denied this but did admit that “there is a bottleneck" in production.
“We are in contact with Member States to ensure that their vaccination campaigns will take place as well as possible but, no, there is no frustration with EMA. Vaccines must be safe and effective and the agency is best placed to do that” European Commission spokesman
He said, “Our philosophy has always been to have a diverse portfolio of different vaccine. You have to remember that the orders were placed at a time of great uncertainty about whether any of the vaccines would actually be safe or effective.”
“At the time there was no certainty that any would be considered safe and effective by the EMA so, to cover this, we developed a diverse portfolio, thereby increasing the chances that at least one of the vaccines being tested would be safe.”
He added, “We did not want to put all our eggs in one basket.”
The spokesman said, “The EMA has recently speeded up its process and pharma companies are now submitting their data earlier than previously which in turn allows the EMA to do a faster job.”
Asked if the EU had been “too late” in ordering sufficient doses for Europe’s 450 million citizens, he said, “On the contrary. For the BioNTech vaccine, we invested in this well before it became clear that the vaccine would be successful.”
The perceived slow roll out has left many frustration but the spokesman said, “frustration is not a word that is in our vocabulary. As far back as mid October, we adopted recommendations on vaccines with very practical proposals to make sure everyone was ready. But don’t forget that this is an extremely complex process and we have never seen a pandemic like this.”
“We are in contact with Member States to ensure that their vaccination campaigns will take place as well as possible but, no, there is no frustration with EMA. Vaccines must be safe and effective and the agency is best placed to do that.”
The commission concedes that there is also a job to be done in “convincing citizens of the importance of having a vaccine.”
The spokesman explained, “We wanted different vaccines from different companies so we could find the ones that are safe. That meant not investing on research into one particular company or one particular vaccine but several companies and several vaccines and this position was supported at the highest levels in Member States.
“I would point out that the Pfizer CEO said in November that the number of doses we'd agreed on was the highest order they had received.”
“It is very important to realise that we need the green light from the EMA and only then could the commission go ahead with ordering a vaccine. We have signed contracts which will allow member states to have two billion doses which is enough for the whole of the EU population.”
He added, “This is a huge undertaking but it is not about who did well and who did not do well but, rather, getting out of this crisis.