BioNTech criticises EU failure to order enough Covid vaccine

Firm races to fill potential gap left by bloc’s gamble on several vaccines being approved

BioNtech 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.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first to be approved by the bloc late last month, after 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.

With criticism growing of the slow pace of the EU’s vaccine programme, Uğur Şahin, thehead of the German biotech firm, told Der Spiegel that the order process in Europe “certainly did not go as fast and smooth as it did with other countries”.

Şahin, who founded BioNtech with his wife, Özlem Türeci, – the firm’s chief medical officer – said the situation was “not rosy” as the EU had wrongly assumed several different vaccines would be ready at once, so spread its orders.

“The assumption was that many other companies would come up with their vaccines,” Şahin said. “It would seem that the impression was: ‘We’ll get enough, it won’t be so bad, and we have this under control.’ It surprised me.”

Türeci told the magazine the EU had assumed there would be “a basket of different suppliers” to choose from. “Such an approach makes sense. But then at some point it became clear that many would be unable to deliver so quickly,” she said. “By that time it was too late to make up for under-ordering.”

The US ordered 600m doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine in July, while the EU waited until November to order half as many. Şahin said the firms were now working flat-out to increase production and “fill a hole due to a lack of other approved vaccines”.

He said BioNTech aimed to get a new manufacturing plant up and running in Marburg, Germany, in February, “far earlier than planned”. It should be able to produce 250m doses in the first half of 2021.

Tureci said the firm had also signed deals with five other pharmaceutical companies in Europe to increase production, and were negotiating with others. “By the end of January we should have clarity on how much more we can produce,” Şahin said.

The Moderna vaccine should be cleared on 6 January by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is under mounting pressure to quickly approve the Oxford vaccine, which was cleared this week by Britain.

Delays in producing and distributing the BioNtech vaccine have caused consternation in Germany, where the focus has been on immunising elderly people in care homes, with some regions having to halt vaccination programmes within days of starting them.

Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said earlier this week he had been bombarded with mail from people complaining about citizens not getting quick enough access to the vaccine, despite it being made in Germany.

He defended EU health ministers’ decision to take a united approach rather than each country operating alone, arguing that having a united front meant smaller, less wealthy member states could have access to it at the same time as wealthier ones.

Spahn said Germany – which has so far inoculated 130,000 people – had taken delivery of 1.3m doses so far. But some of the 400-plus vaccine centres have had to temporarily close due to a lack of supplies.

There have been similar complaints in France, where just 322 people have been vaccinated, prompting the government to promise that health workers aged over 50 could get the vaccine from Monday, sooner than originally planned.

Italy has so far vaccinated 8,300 people and Spain said it was on track to have administered 1.3m doses.

A spokesperson for the French government, Gabriel Attal, defended the pace of France’s campaign on Friday, saying it was targeting care homes for the elderly and was “not going to judge a vaccination campaign that will last six months on a few days”.

The health minister, Olivier Véran, announced on Thursday evening that the vaccine would be made available earlier than planned to older health workers. Ministers and officials had been accused of pandering to anti-vaxxers by going too slowly.

The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid jab is an mRNA vaccine. Essentially, mRNA is a molecule used by living cells to turn the gene sequences in DNA into the proteins that are the building blocks of all their fundamental structures. A segment of DNA gets copied (“transcribed”) into a piece of mRNA, which in turn gets “read” by the cell’s tools for synthesising proteins.

In the case of an mRNA vaccine, the virus’s mRNA is injected into the muscle, and our own cells then read it and synthesise the viral protein. The immune system reacts to these proteins – which can’t by themselves cause disease – just as if they’d been carried in on the whole virus. This generates a protective response that, studies suggest, lasts for some time.

The two first Covid-19 vaccines to announce phase 3 three trial results were mRNA-based. They were first off the blocks because, as soon as the genetic code of Sars-CoV-2 was known – it was published by the Chinese in January 2020 – companies that had been working on this technology were able to start producing the virus’s mRNA. Making conventional vaccines takes much longer.

Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre, University of Bristol

“Some of you have questioned the rhythm of the Covid-19 vaccination in France, a few days after it began in Europe,” Véran tweeted.

“Some countries have already vaccinated a lot; others haven’t started. Be reassured. The vaccine campaign will soon pick up speed. The vaccine is a historic opportunity to end this epidemic and return to normal life and we will not miss it.”

In his new year address, President Emmanuel Macron said he would not allow an “unjustified delay” in the inoculation of the population to happen for “bad reasons”. The president called on people to trust their doctors and scientists.

French officials had admitted they were taking a “marathon not sprint” approach to vaccination after running into strong public opposition.

A Europe-wide poll by Ipsos showed that only 40% of French people questioned said they were willing to have a Covid-19 jab. France says those receiving the vaccine must give written consent after being fully informed of possible side-effects and time to consider whether they want it.

Opposition politicians and doctors have criticised this approach.


Jon Henley, Kate Connolly and Kim Willsher

The GuardianTramp

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