A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a care home in Paris
A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at a care home in Paris © Bloomberg

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EU governments struggling with the slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines have hit out at plans by Pfizer to delay supplies to European countries, including the UK, from next week.

Germany’s health ministry said on Friday that it regretted the “unexpected and . . . very short notice” announcement, especially as the US pharmaceuticals company had promised “binding delivery dates” until the middle of next month.

Health ministers from six Nordic and Baltic states also expressed “severe concern about the sustainability and credibility of the Covid-19 vaccination process” following the US company’s decision.

The reaction to the delays highlight rising tensions in EU capitals and the European Commission, which are facing criticism over the bloc’s lagging immunisation rates relative to the UK and US.

Pfizer confirmed that estimated volumes of vaccine deliveries “may need to be adjusted” as part of efforts to deliver more doses than originally planned in total in 2021 because the increase in manufacturing meant extra regulatory approvals were required. But it added that although there would be a “temporary impact” to shipments in late January and early February, there would be a “significant increase in doses available for patients in late February and March”.

As a result, shipping schedules at its Belgian facility in Puurs could fluctuate in the immediate future.

Supply to the UK, which comes from the same plant, would also see changes, it added. A UK government spokesperson said: “We are in the process of understanding the implications of Pfizer’s announcement today to our plans. However, we continue to plan to hit our target of vaccinating all four priority groups by February 15.”

The wave of EU concern came after Geir Bukholm, director of infection control at the Norwegian public health institute, said on Friday that Pfizer told his country it would receive 18 per cent fewer doses of the vaccine it has developed with BioNTech than expected next week.

He added that the temporary reduction would affect all European countries as Pfizer reorganises its production to increase capacity this year from 1.3bn doses to 2bn. Two doses are needed to achieve immunisation.

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Denmark and Sweden wrote to the commission on Friday, to say local representatives from the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine collaboration had told them deliveries would be “substantially reduced”. The countries did not disclose the degree of the cuts but said some had been told normal service would resume from February 8 while others had been given no end date.

Sweden separately said it had been told to expect a 25 per cent cut in the first week.

“This situation is unacceptable,” the ministers wrote in the letter, seen by the Financial Times. “Not only does it impact the planned vaccination schedules, it also decreases the credibility of the vaccination process.”

The German government said it expected the commission, in its negotiations with Pfizer, to create “clarity and security on the further deliveries and delivery dates as soon as possible”.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said she had “immediately” called Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, after hearing the news that would affect “urgently” needed supplies in the coming months.

“He explained that there is a production delay in the next weeks, but he reassured me that all guaranteed doses of the first quarter will be delivered in the first quarter,” she told reporters. “He is personally on the case on reducing the delay period, and to make sure that they will catch up as soon as possible.”

BioNTech said that by January 25, deliveries to EU countries would return to their original schedule, and that from February 15, Pfizer’s Belgian facility would increase the number of doses shipped per week thanks to expanded capacity. The German company’s newly acquired manufacturing site in Marburg is also expected to come online by mid-February. The facility was approved for vaccine production by German authorities on Friday, and would be able to produce roughly 750m doses a year, said BioNTech.

Spain’s health ministry said it was in contact with the commission and Pfizer to mitigate the impact of the reduction as it awaited confirmation of the new number of doses and deadlines for deliveries.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, Joe Miller in Frankfurt and Daniel Dombey in Madrid

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