Shortfall in jabs pushes EU vaccine drive to crisis point

The EU’s Covid-19 vaccination plan is nearing crisis point after several regions suspended inoculations over the shortage of jabs and Brussels moved to restrict exports of vaccines to conserve stocks.

The independent commission advising the German government on vaccination policy has recommended that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab not be used for people aged over 65, a move that heaps pressure on the bloc’s vaccine effort.

Meanwhile, authorities in Paris and Lisbon have stopped or delayed administering first injections of Covid-19 jabs because of shortages. The Paris region and two other regions accounting for about a third of the French population have postponed new vaccinations for up to four weeks to conserve doses for those entitled to second and final injections of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.

Faced with similar shortages, Portugal said its vaccination campaign would be delayed by up to two months. The country follows the Madrid region, which warned on Wednesday that it would pause its campaign for 10 days.

Brussels is attempting to reassert control of the push in the midst of an escalating row with AstraZeneca over supply problems.

Charles Michel, European Council president, wrote to the leaders of four member states calling on the bloc to explore the use of new legal powers and “enforcement measures” to ramp up vaccine production in the EU. The bloc’s faltering vaccination drive comes as inoculations proceed at pace in other countries including the US and UK.

The EU will on Friday propose empowering governments to block exports of vaccines, forcing pharmaceutical companies to seek authorisation before shipping the life-saving jabs out of the bloc.

The ire of EU member states is focused particularly on AstraZeneca, which is awaiting authorisation for its vaccine in the EU but last Friday reported big production shortfalls.

An EU official said this week that the drug company was now planning to deliver only a quarter of the previously planned 100m or more doses in the first three months. The commission and EU capitals are asking questions over shipments to the UK of vaccines produced by AstraZeneca inside the EU.

The EU’s new rules on jab exports would potentially hit supplies of the first three western-made vaccines to come to market, as all have manufacturing operations in the EU. BioNTech/Pfizer supplies the whole world apart from the US from its Belgian plant, while Moderna produces its non-US vaccine supply in Switzerland but fills and finishes the vials in Spain.

AstraZeneca produces jabs in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as the UK. It has run into trouble in Germany, where the Standing Vaccine Commission at the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s main public health agency, said there were “insufficient data currently available to ascertain how effective the vaccination is above 65 years”.

The agency recommended the jab be used only on people aged 18-64. AstraZeneca rejected the recommendation.

The EMA is expected to reach a decision on Friday on approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the EU.

Reporting by Jim Brunsden, Sam Fleming and Michael Peel in Brussels, Leila Abboud in Paris, Guy Chazan in Berlin and Donato Paolo Mancini in Rome

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