Europe’s coronavirus vaccine glut leads to call for contract transparency
Countries want a ‘new, fairer deal’ with Pfizer.
Poland’s Health Minister Adam Niedzielski called on the European Commission on Tuesday to explain why it entered into a large COVID-19 vaccine contract at the height of the pandemic that has left the bloc on the hook for millions of unused doses.
Niedzielski was answering a request for comment by POLITICO on Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s personal involvement in securing Europe’s biggest vaccine contract, for up to 1.8 billion doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. The top EU official’s exact role in the negotiations has been an open question since the New York Times reported that she personally exchanged messages with Pfizer’s Chief Executive Albert Bourla in the run-up to the deal.
The minister called the issue of how the negotiations were conducted "the next question mark."
"People are also asking questions in Poland. How it is possible that the number of doses is so high? ... We want a straight explanation," said Niedzielski, speaking to journalists after a meeting of the bloc’s health ministers in Brussels.
Bulgaria’s minister for health, Assen Medjidiev, also called for more transparency, and referenced attempts by EU institutions including the European Parliament, the European Court of Auditors, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office as well as the European Ombudsman to shine a light on the negotiations in his statement.
Too many doses
Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows that vaccinations have pretty much come to a standstill in Europe as the threat of the coronavirus has receded. Only 1.7 percent of the EU/EEA’s adult population has been administered a third booster, with that number barely budging since the start of the year.
But, because of binding contracts signed at the height of the pandemic — which all EU member countries signed off on — governments are stuck regularly buying shots. By far the largest source of vaccines is the European Commission’s huge third deal with BioNTech/Pfizer. A Pfizer spokesperson said that 450 million doses are scheduled for delivery this year, worth around €8.8 billion based on a price of €19.50 per dose reported by the Financial Times.
The prickly topic of vaccine oversupply first became an issue almost a year ago, when Poland said it would unilaterally stop accepting doses. Niedzielski has since confirmed that Poland has stopped paying for deliveries.
Since then, a coalition of Eastern and Central European countries formed to push for a new deal, arguing that the pandemic has entered a new stage where less vaccine is required, and the Ukraine war is already straining public finances.
The European Commission is in negotiations to try and adjust the terms of the contract.
Referring to an in-principle deal that now needs to be signed off on by the member countries, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said in a written comment that negotiators had "achieved a significant reduction of doses, an extension of our contract in time far beyond 2023, and security of supply in case more doses are needed."
Poland, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Hungary aren’t buying it. In a joint statement they write that "these proposals do not present a final and fair solution to the problems of COVID-19 vaccine surplus." Instead they call for a "new, fairer deal" with the vaccine maker as well as a "significant reduction in the number of doses.
Specifically, they rejected a proposed “flexibility fee.” Reuters had previously reported that Brussels was considering paying more for each vaccine in exchange for a reduction in deliveries.
Whether or not they have enough support to form a blocking minority isn’t clear. Austrian Health Minister Johannes Rauch took a similar position in written statement published Monday evening. He said that while EU joint procurement had been a success story, pharmaceutical companies had made significant profits, and it was time for the European Commission take a strong position in negotiations to rewrite the contracts.
It’s not clear how many vaccines have had to be thrown away so far throughout the EU. A report from public broadcaster BR24 from January put the number at 36.6 million doses just in Germany. Austria’s health minister said that 17.5 million doses are unused in the country and "available for vaccination."