© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Vials labelled “COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine” and sryinge are seen in front of displayed J&J logo in this illustration
By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union won’t take up an extra 300 million doses of AstraZeneca (NASDAQ:AZN) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) COVID-19 vaccines that it has secured as options under existing contracts, a senior EU official told Reuters.
The decision is the latest sign Brussels is looking to distance itself from AstraZeneca amid simmering tensions after the drugmaker slashed its delivery targets due to production problems.
It is also further evidence the bloc is sidelining vaccines that have been linked with a very rare, but potentially fatal side effect, and is confident current suppliers – led by Pfizer/BioNTech – will deliver enough doses to inoculate at least 70% of EU adults by the end of the summer.
Recently, the EU has sought to buy more shots from Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and its partner BioNTech, stepping up its bets on the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology they use, as opposed to the viral vector technology used by AstraZeneca and J&J.
The 27-nation bloc has a contract for a total of 400 million doses with J&J, of which only 200 million have already been ordered, and a separate contract with AstraZeneca for 400 million shots, of which only 300 million have been bought.
“There is no need to exercise the options” for the extra doses, the official who is directly involved in talks with vaccine makers said.
EU governments are under pressure to accelerate vaccination programmes, which have lagged those in Britain and the United States due to supply delays and safety concerns, to help tame a third wave of infections.
A spokesman for the European Commission, which coordinates talks with vaccine makers, said options can be exercised at any time, but declined further comment.
The official, who asked not to be named because the matter is confidential, said discussions were ongoing about further supplies for booster shots and coronavirus variants, and it was premature to rule AstraZeneca and J&J out of future contracts.
But the technology on which their shots are based is less appealing than other vaccine platforms, the official said. Last week, Italian newspaper La Stampa said the EU would not renew contracts with the companies when they expire.
Both vaccines have been linked to very rare cases of blood clots, which have led to temporary suspensions of their rollout in Europe, although the EU drugs regulator has concluded the benefits of both vaccines outweigh the risks.
Both companies have also had production problems, with AstraZeneca in particular slashing its EU supply targets by two thirds to 100 million doses by the end of June, sparking fury in Brussels.
The EU official said AstraZeneca’s supply problems had convinced EU negotiators not to seek the optional doses from the company. Under the contract, that option should have been exercised by early March, although the EU could have still tried to order more doses after then.
A spokesman for AstraZeneca declined to comment.
The EU official added that, in the case of J&J, initial safety concerns about viral vector technology had pushed negotiators not to seek optional doses and might also prevent talks for a new contract.
A spokeswoman for J&J declined to comment.
The EU’s existing COVID-19 vaccine contracts have been widely criticised for being too lenient with companies because they set quarterly rather than monthly delivery targets, although other countries have done the same.
Last week, the Commission said it was starting talks with Pfizer and BioNTech to buy up to 1.8 billion vaccine doses for the coming years under a new contract with monthly targets, as it prepares for the possible spread of new virus variants and potential waning protection from initial shots.
The EU source said the new contract with Pfizer and BioNTech was expected to meet a large share of the EU’s demand in 2022 and 2023.
The bloc, with a population of nearly 450 million, has already ordered 600 million Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines for this year. It has also bought 310 million doses from Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) to be delivered this year, and has an option to buy another 150 million doses next year. Moderna also uses mRNA technology.
The EU also has contracts with CureVac and Sanofi (PA:SASY), but neither of them has completed clinical trials.
EU snubs extra 300 million J&J, Astra shots in bet on Pfizer – source