EU plans video summit after doubling supply of Pfizer Covid vaccine

EU leaders are to hold a pandemic video summit on 21 January after the bloc said it had reached a deal with Pfizer and BioNTech for 300m more doses of their Covid-19 vaccine, giving the EU nearly half the firms’ global output for 2021.

The move raised hopes for speedier inoculation across the continent as the European regulator, which this week approved the Moderna shot, said it would authorise six doses from each vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, increasing available jabs by 20%.

The Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) also said on Friday it may be able to approve the cheaper AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with the University of Oxford and already cleared by authorities in Britain and India, by the end of January.

The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU had agreed with BioNTech and Pfizer to double the size of its existing 300m-dose contract with a 200m-dose order along with an option for a further 100m.

She said 75m of the extra doses would be delivered by June and the rest by the end of the year. Combined with the Moderna contract, the deal means the EU can now vaccinate 380 million people, Von der Leyen said, more than 80% of its population.

The EU has sealed six vaccine contracts for up to 2bn doses with Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sanofi/GSK, Janssen Pharmaceutica and CureVac, but only the first two have so far been approved for use in the bloc.

However, the EMA said on Friday it had approved doctors drawing an extra dose from each vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, recommending product information for the vaccine be updated to clarify that each vial contains six doses rather than five.

Germany’s health ministry spokesman, Hanno Kautz, said the change, which has been authorised in the US, Britain and other countries, would come into effect immediately, boosting the number of doses already available in the bloc by a fifth.

The EMA’s executive director, Emer Cooke, also said the process of authorising the AstraZeneca vaccine could be complete by the end of January, depending on the data the regulator receives from the manufacturer and its satisfactory evaluation.

The announcements came amid growing criticism, notably in Germany, of the decision to allow the commission to handle vaccine purchases for all 27 member nations, and slow progress in many countries including France and the Netherlands.

The EU has defended its strategy, insisting vaccination programmes have only just begun and large vaccine deliveries are foreseen for around April. Several member states have also simply been slow to get their national rollouts under way.

“We were faced with a situation where we had huge demand, but the production capacity had not kept pace with that as yet. Now we have a positive step forward,” Von der Leyen told a press conference in Brussels.

France, where the government is under fire for the slow pace of an inoculation programme that experts say is tangled in red tape and has left the country trailing behind Britain and Germany, said on Thursday it was speeding up and simplifying the process.

“Vaccination is the number one priority for the government,” said the prime minister, Jean Castex. “We are convinced it’s the broadest, fastest vaccination campaign that will allow us to emerge from the crisis. But let’s not confuse haste and speed.”

The health minister, Olivier Véran, said procedures would be simplified. France will extend the period between the two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech shot to six weeks from three, he said, allowing more people to get a first jab sooner.

Amid reports that some EU countries had tried to secure separate deals with vaccine manufacturers, Von der Leyen also made clear that such negotiations would violate the agreement accepted by all the bloc’s members.

“We have all agreed, legally binding, that there would be no parallel negotiations, no parallel contract,” she said. “So the framework we are all working in is a framework of 27. Together we are negotiating, together we are procuring and together we are bringing forward this vaccination process.”

Kautz said a parallel deal struck by Berlin with BioNTech, a German company, for 30m doses outside EU agreements was “compatible with the EU agreements. The extra allocations we have secured do not disrupt the other contracts.”

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