EU countries prepare to pressure Commission to renegotiate coronavirus vaccine contracts

Polish officials are preparing a letter asking the Commission to redraw its current coronavirus vaccine procurement agreements after an informal meeting of health ministers from a number of EU countries on Wednesday.

A Slovak diplomat said that the country plans to back Poland’s efforts. In a public statement on Thursday, the Bulgarian health ministry also said that it was concerned about the current vaccine contract situation.

“The Ministry of Health believes that states should be able to purchase only amounts they really need,” reads the Bulgarian ministry statement, which says that the current vaccine contract framework “is not working.” The influx of refugees from Ukraine had put additional pressure on the country’s budget, which could be offset “by reducing the quantities of vaccines.”

Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said last month that his country would refuse both to pay for, and take delivery of, further doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. The improving pandemic situation meant that there was less need for vaccines. He also cited financial strains caused by the influx of millions of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia asked the Commission to renegotiate the contracts to allow deliveries to be shifted to a time when they are more likely to be needed, or that the option to substitute vaccine deliveries with other medical products be provided. The oversupply of vaccines was putting pressure on the countries’ storage and logistics networks, and also had “budgetary implications,” they noted.

The Commission has secured up to 4.2 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines, nearly ten times the population of the EU. Of those, 1.3 billion have been delivered so far. Multiple booster doses are needed to keep antibody protection high. Vaccine-makers are developing vaccines adapted for variants in preparation for the fall, in case of a repeat of the seasonal increases in cases seen in the past two years of the pandemic.

The levelling off of vaccination campaigns and the improving pandemic situation, coupled with the vast increase in vaccine production capacity over the past two years, means that sometimes vaccine doses expire unused, and are destroyed. According to the NGO People’s Vaccine Alliance, by February the EU had to throw away 55 million doses of COVID vaccines.

The videoconference on Thursday, organized by Poland, was attended by officials from Romania, Denmark, Slovakia, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Finland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Bulgaria, an EU diplomat said. However, attendance doesn’t necessarily imply support for the proposal.

A spokesperson from the Polish health ministry said that “most of the representatives present reported similar problems concerning vaccine agreements to those identified by Poland” and backed the idea of a joint letter. The letter is expected to be ready for other countries to sign next week.

“We are committed to a mutual and consensual resolution of this issue,” the spokesperson added.

Last week the Commission announced it had reached an agreement with BioNTech/Pfizer to reschedule vaccine deliveries for the winter and fall.

But one EU diplomat from an Eastern European country said that while the Commission’s agreement to make contracts more flexible was appreciated, “there is a need to change more than the Commission has committed.”

“Member states agreed that the situation with surplus vaccines is unsustainable and that it is necessary to open existing contracts for the purchase of vaccines in order to adapt them to the market situation,” another EU diplomat said.

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