EU pledges to ramp up COVID-19 vaccine production; sets vaccination targets

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/artjazz
Pic:getty/artjazz

Related tags: COVID-19 vaccine, European union

The European Commission has set out steps to ramp up production of COVID-19 vaccines; tackle issues in the supply chain; and boost vaccination campaigns.

Outlining its plans today, the Commission has also set vaccination targets for its 27 Member States. By March 2021, countries should have vaccinated a minimum of 80% of health and social care professionals and people over 80 years old. By summer 2021, vaccination should cover 70% of the adult population.

But the Commission acknowledges that, in order to meet these objectives, the supply of vaccines will need to be ramped up. This could include investment boosts for manufacturing sites, increasing manufacturing under contract, and facilitating agreements between different vaccine manufacturers to allow them to produce each other's vaccines. 

Decision on AstraZeneca vaccine due by the end of the month

The Commission says its EU Vaccines Strategy has proved a success in securing the quantity of vaccines needed across its 27 Member States and 450 million people. It has secured 2.3 billion doses from six manufacturers to create the ‘broadest portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines in the world’. This approach will allow more than 1 billion people in Europe, its neighborhood and beyond to be vaccinated.

The agreements for the EU authorized BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will ultimately provide doses for 380 million people, or over 80% of the EU’s population. The EMA is currently assessing a third vaccine - Oxford/AstraZeneca – with a decision due by the end of the month. It has also started a rolling review of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Two other supply agreements come from CureVac and Sanofi/GSK.

However, the EU has been plagued by criticism of a slow roll out and says that efforts will be stepped up.

Since vaccination started on December 27, around 13 million doses have been delivered to member States on a pro-rata population basis: representing 12.25 million doses from BioNTech-Pfizer and 850,000 doses from Moderna.

To this date, around 5 million vaccinations have been administered in the EU. This compares, for example, to 14.7 million shots in the US (population around 330 million) or 4 million in the UK (population around 67 million)  - although these two countries authorized their first vaccines earlier than the EU. In per capita terms, the EU has administered 1.29 doses per 100 people:​ compared to 4.48 in the US and 6.76 in the UK.

“While each Member State vaccinates in line with its own strategy, it is important that vaccination efforts in Europe stay largely synchronised – for health-related and Single Market reasons alike," ​writes the Commission in a communication to the European Parliament. 

“However, early data suggests significant differences between Member States in the percentage of people vaccinated, ranging from above to 2% to below 0.5%. While it is still early days, it is important to keep track of progress and in this spirit the Commission and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will set up a system to monitor progress with vaccine deployment to support fast and efficient roll-out in all Member States."

‘Vaccination is not a race between countries but a race against time’

The European Commission notes that, as new variants spread, speeding up the administration of vaccines becomes all the more important.

Two days ahead of a meeting of European leaders on a co-ordinated response to the pandemic, the Commission outlines actions needed to step up the fight.

These span 4 key areas: speeding up vaccination & vaccine supplies; ramping up testing & sequencing of new variants; ensure functioning of single market; and showing international leadership & solidarity with partners.  

“Vaccination requires a complex set of management and logistical steps, as well as a readiness to scale these up in line with increases in supply.

"These include having adequate stocks, effective appointment management systems, organising locations and facilities for mass vaccination, the preparation of necessary cold storage, and the training of extra personnel.

“To support this, the Commission will work with companies to develop a transparent and clear delivery schedule of the different vaccines.

"It has secured a supply line of vital medical equipment needed for vaccination via EU Joint Procurement, from which Member States can now place orders.”

It has also outlined vaccination targets for Member States in order to put the Union ‘on track for herd immunity’.

By March 2021, Member States should have vaccinated a minimum of 80% of health and social care professionals and people over 80 years old. By summer 2021, Member States should have vaccinated a minimum of 70% of the adult population.

“Meeting these two targets would, in a first instance, reduce death and hospitalisation rates, relieve pressure on healthcare systems and then put Europe on track for herd immunity, helping to protect those who cannot be vaccinated and providing a bulwark against the spread of the virus. A successful deployment of vaccines will also help put Europe’s economy on a solid recovery path.”

And it says that having solid targets are essential for vaccination campaigns: “What gets measured gets done.”

Ramping up vaccine production, supplies and information

The Commission acknowledges that, in order to meet these objectives, the supply of vaccines will need to be ramped up: and in particular supply chain issues will need to be addressed. This could include investment in manufacturing plants, sharing facilities between manufacturers, and increasing manufacturing under contract.

“The European Commission and the EIB have continuously supported the increase of manufacturing capacities in the EU via the Advance Purchase Agreements and EIB loans. They will continue working with manufacturers to maximise production capacity in the EU.

"To this end, the Commission will engage in a structured dialogue with the actors in the vaccine manufacturing value chain. Support may take different forms such as investment support for manufacturing plants, encouraging, and facilitating where needed, agreements between manufacturers to repurpose facilities to produce each other’s approved vaccines and further expand capacities via manufacturing under contract. This will also help to overcome any supply chain issues.

“The Commission and Member States should work together with companies to ensure that new production comes on stream as quickly as possible. It will also work with the EMA to speed up the approval process for new production facilities.

"The ECDC will use stress-testing to identify successful logistical steps – such as how to set up vaccination centres and how to run electronic reservation systems – to make a stock of good practice and practical advice available to Member States. To support this, EU-wide COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness studies will be conducted and coordinated by the EMA and ECDC."

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