EU Looks to Bolster Future Health Response Amid Vaccine Snags

The European Union said it’s taking steps to bolster its pandemic preparedness, citing the risk posed by Covid variants that reduce the efficacy of vaccines.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday held a video call with chief executives of pharmaceutical companies including AstraZeneca Plc and Moderna Inc. to discuss how vaccines could be more rapidly deployed, manufactured and approved in the future.

“The pandemic highlighted that manufacturing capacities are a limiting factor. It is essential to address these challenges,” the commission said in a statement after the call. It added that “the emergence of variants of concern raises the imminent threat of reduced efficacy of recently approved vaccines.”

The meeting comes at a perilous time for the EU as it tries to overcome the slow and chaotic rollout of its vaccination program. The bloc introduced new measures over the weekend that would oblige drug companies to obtain prior authorization before they can send shots manufactured in the EU to other countries.

During the meeting, the issue of export restrictions wasn’t discussed, according to an official with knowledge of the talks who asked not to be identified because the call was private.

The restrictive export measures represent a dramatic escalation in the global battle for vaccines, with thousands dying every day and the European economy struggling under lockdown measures that have lasted almost a year. But the move risks drawing accusations of protectionism as the EU tries to compensate for perceived missteps in negotiations with drugmakers and the slow rollout of national vaccination programs.

So far, the EU’s 27 governments have administered just 2.6 doses of vaccine per 100 people, far behind the 12.5 doses in the U.K. and 8.8 in the U.S. Furthermore, hiccups in the supply of the highly anticipated AstraZeneca vaccine have cast serious doubts over the bloc’s ability to meet its ambitious inoculation targets.

Also included in the meeting were executives from BioNTech SE, Pfizer Inc., Johnson & Johnson, CureVac NV and Sanofi, according to the statement.

Sunday’s discussion between von der Leyen and the pharmaceutical executives focused on the EU’s longer term health strategy and preparedness. Inspired by early stumbles in curbing the spread of the coronavirus last year, the push for a common approach aims to guard against a patchwork of national responses to any future health scares.

The discussion follows proposals by the commission last November to beef up the EU’s health agencies, after the pandemic overwhelmed the continent’s hospitals and left countries struggling with supply shortages. The plans included giving more clout to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Medicines Agency.

On Jan. 29, the EU’s drug regulator cleared a Covid-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. The new vaccine will be the third available in the EU after shots from Pfizer and Moderna, and it could help alleviate the shortage of shots as the EU trails the U.K. and the U.S. in vaccinations.

— With assistance by Nikos Chrysoloras

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