The EU plans to pump billions of euros into advance purchase deals with pharmaceutical companies for potential coronavirus vaccines, in a sign of intensifying rich country efforts to secure supplies of any future treatment.
The bloc’s health ministers on Friday gave political backing to a European Commission plan to use a “large majority” of a €2.7bn emergency fund for the effort and to ensure fair access to any remedy worldwide.
The move highlights the urgency of European efforts to escape a pandemic that has hit the populations and economies of many of its countries hard. It may also stoke fears that poorer countries will be squeezed out of vaccine purchases by the financial muscle of the world’s biggest economies.
“At times when the world is taking steps to get access to a future vaccine, the EU must show a united front in these global efforts,” Stella Kyriakides, EU health commissioner, told reporters after the ministerial teleconference. “We have to act fast and we have to invest upfront in vaccine development to ensure that vaccines are being produced at the scale required as early as possible.”
Money from an EU fund known as the Emergency Support Instrument would be mobilised — and potentially topped up — to finance manufacturers’ efforts to make vaccines at speed and scale, under a draft commission strategy to be published next week. The funds would be targeted primarily at drugs that will enter clinical trials this year with a view to mass production in 2021.
“This will avoid competition between us and offer vaccine producers a simplified negotiating process,” Ms Kyriakides said. “Working together, we will have the benefit of scale, bringing the demand of almost 500m citizens and the leverage of the EU budget.”
The new fund would avoid companies whose only manufacturing capacity is in the US, since Washington has indicated it wants US-made medicines for itself, an EU official said.
“Location is important, timing is important and the solidness of the scientific approach is important,” the official said of how the EU would pick the companies it works with.
EU officials insisted they were co-operating rather than competing with a similar initiative set up by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands — all of which are EU members — to secure access to some of the scores of vaccines under development internationally. The UK, which left the bloc in January, could have access to the vaccine scheme during the Brexit transition period that runs until the end of the year.
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The commission paper insists the EU will continue “playing its part in ensuring global access to the vaccine, irrespective of wealth”, despite campaigners’ fears of a squeeze on supplies to poorer nations. “A vaccine . . . needs to be accessible to all in Europe and around the globe,” Ms Kyriakides said. “No region in the world is safe unless we are all safe.”
France’s Sanofi, the world’s third-largest vaccine maker, has said it welcomes “any EU co-ordinated initiative” on vaccines. Paul Hudson, Sanofi’s chief executive, has called on Europe to adopt a system similar to the US, where the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda) has bankrolled the development and manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines by his company and others.
Mr Hudson created a scandal in France last month and earned a summons to see President Emmanuel Macron when he suggested that Barda’s investments could mean that the US would be first in line for any successful vaccine. He later apologised and pledged that Sanofi would manufacture vaccines both in the US and Europe to ensure access for all who needed it.
Barda has committed more than $1bn to a joint project between UK drugs company AstraZeneca and Oxford university, and about $500m each to US groups Johnson & Johnson and Moderna to expand manufacturing capacity for their vaccines. It has also made smaller investments in projects from academia and in the supply chain, for example, making a grant of $143m for manufacturing special vials in which to distribute a vaccine.
When asked about the new EU funding, J&J said it would “continue to work with local and international health authorities, governments, regulators and NGOs”. Moderna did not respond to a request for comment.