By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union wants to raise more money to shore up its supplies of potential COVID-19 vaccines after estimating that the number of shots available next year around the world might fall short of demand, two EU sources said.
The possible move by the wealthy EU could weaken a global procurement effort co-led by the World Health Organization and further limit the vaccines available to poorer countries, even though the bloc has publicly championed the sharing of COVID-19 vaccines among the entire global population.
The EU executive, the European Commission, told a meeting of EU ambassadors last week that it was “trying to be pragmatic as the total number of vaccines that could be produced globally next year is 2.4 billion,” one of the EU sources told Reuters.
The WHO scheme, called COVAX, wants to secure 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 and many countries, most of them wealthy nations such as the United States, are in a race to ensure they have their own supplies of potential vaccines.
According to the Commission’s estimate, demand could far outstrip supply next year. Global coronavirus cases exceeded 30 million on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally, and the pandemic shows no signs of slowing.
As part of its new push, the Commission is urging the 27 EU member states’ governments to back negotiations with a seventh vaccine maker, the two sources said, after it reached deals with AstraZeneca and Sanofi and announced advanced talks with Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer and CureVac for their potential COVID-19 shots.
The Commission told the member states’ ambassadors that this new effort would require a top-up of an EU emergency fund which has so far made available about 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) to buy COVID-19 vaccines, the sources said.
At the meeting, the envoys supported the plan to boost the Emergency Support Instrument (ESI) but talks on how much each EU government should chip in are still under way, they said.
“Member states are aware that they can make additional contributions to the ESI if we want to extend the portfolio, as there is only a finite amount of funding available for the ESI,” a Commission spokesman said on Friday, but declined to give further details.
During a video conference of EU health ministers on Sept. 4, the German government, which holds the EU presidency for the second half of this year, estimated that an additional 750 million euros would be needed to develop existing vaccine candidates, according to minutes of the meeting seen by Reuters.
The EU money is used for down payments to vaccine makers and covers mostly development and production costs. Under the deals negotiated by Brussels, EU states are in exchange granted the right to buy a pre-agreed amount of doses at a set price.
While the initial payment would be lost if a vaccine proved ineffective or dangerous, the deals allow the EU to secure doses in advance with a commitment to make the larger payments at a later stage if vaccines are successful.
In August, the Commission paid AstraZeneca 336 million euros to secure under these conditions 300 million doses of its vaccine under development with an option to buy other 100 million shots.
Brussels has already secured, or is negotiating the supply of, nearly 2 billion doses of potential COVID-19 vaccines from six companies with unspecified delivery dates, according to public figures.
That is the same amount of vaccines that the WHO is committed to buying through its COVAX facility in 2021 and distribute among all countries in the world.
The Commission has privately warned EU governments not to buy vaccines through COVAX, European officials have told Reuters, as the global procurement scheme could result in the EU having a small share of shots as its population is only 450 million of the world’s nearly 8 billion people.
In line with Commission’s recommendations, Germany and France, the EU’s largest states, would not buy vaccines through the WHO-led scheme, EU officials told Reuters.
However, the EU has publicly said it wants to boost the production capacity of vaccine makers and share any excess doses with poorer nations. It is also one of the largest donors to the WHO for securing vaccines.
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(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio, Editing by Timothy Heritage)