EU welcomes agreements to obtain more vaccines, fight variants

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union announced Wednesday that it has agreed to buy an additional 300 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine against COVID-19 and is injecting nearly a quarter of a billion euros (almost $ 300 million) in efforts to contain the threat of variants of the coronavirus that are spreading across the continent.

The news came hours after Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they had signed an agreement to deliver an additional 200 million doses of their vaccine to the bloc.

The EU Commission said its second contract with Moderna provides for an additional purchase of 150 million doses in 2021 and an option to purchase an additional 150 million in 2022. If the EU has enough supplies by then, it will consider donating vaccines to reduce and middle-income countries.

“With a portfolio of up to 2.6 billion doses, we will be able to provide vaccines not only to our citizens, but also to our neighbors and partners,” said EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen and his team have been heavily criticized for dealing with the vaccine acquisition process. Although the 27-nation bloc began vaccinating its 450 million citizens almost two months ago, it is still far behind Britain, the United States and other countries in the share of the population reached.

The Brussels-based executive also revealed plans to better detect variants of the virus and accelerate the approval of adapted vaccines capable of fighting them.

As the British variant of the virus appears destined to become dominant in the EU, the executive branch said it would spend at least € 75 million to support genomic sequencing and develop specialized tests for new variants. Another € 150 million will go to research and data exchange.

“Our priority is to ensure that all Europeans have access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible,” said von der Leyen. “At the same time, new variants of the virus are emerging quickly and we must adapt our response even faster.”

Germany’s health minister said the variant of the virus first detected in Britain last year now accounts for more than a fifth of all positive tests in his country. The variant increased from 6% of cases to more than 22% in just two weeks.

“The share of infections with this variant of the virus practically doubles every week,” said Health Minister Jens Spahn. “We have to assume that the variant could soon become dominant here, too.”

In Slovakia, which now has the highest rate of virus deaths per population in the world, officials said the variant first identified in Britain was found in 74% of its positive samples in a test.

Scientists say the UK variant appears to spread more easily and is probably more deadly, but so far the existing vaccines appear to be effective against it. Another variant first detected in South Africa, however, showed signs of being able to escape the immune response generated by the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Authorities in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, have expressed concern that some people seem less willing to get the AstraZeneca vaccine than those manufactured by Moderna or Pfizer.

“The authorized AstraZeneca vaccine is not a second-class vaccine,” said the state health ministry. “The vaccine shows good efficacy and is well tolerated.”

The reluctance towards the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is only given to people under 65 in Germany, has been reinforced by reports that some people had a fever and headaches after getting the vaccine. Officials say such reactions are normal after vaccinations, show that the body’s immune system is responding and symptoms should disappear after a day or two.

Spahn said that if people didn’t want to take pictures of AstraZeneca, he and others would be happy to.

“If the people who receive the offer do not accept it, we will offer it to the next person,” he said. “We will have 10 million doses of the vaccine by the end of the week, for 80 million citizens. We are still in a period of scarcity. “

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech confirmed that they have also concluded an agreement to supply the EU with an additional 200 million doses of vaccine.

The two companies said that these doses – scheduled for delivery this year, about 75 million of them in the second quarter – come in addition to the 300 million doses of vaccines that the bloc initially ordered. The EU Executive Committee has the option to request an additional 100 million doses.

Last month, Pfizer said it was temporarily reducing deliveries to Europe and Canada, while upgrading the production capacity of its plant in Belgium. The EU also had a public fight with AstraZeneca over obtaining fewer vaccines than expected. The head of AstraZeneca attributed the delay to the new factories that needed to solve the problems of vaccine production.

The European Medicines Agency is considering a request by Johnson & Johnson to authorize its coronavirus vaccine and said it could issue an opinion in mid-March. The J&J vaccine is given as one injection, while the other three vaccines require two injections at intervals of weeks.

Authorities in Berlin opened on Wednesday the fifth coronavirus vaccination center in the capital, located within a covered cycling arena. The vast Velodrom, built as part of Berlin’s failed bid for the 2000 Olympics, started with just 120 vaccines, but officials hope to increase it to 2,200 a day.

“We can’t complain,” said Dieter Krueger, who had been waiting in his recovery room with Ilse, his wife for 60 years, after receiving a vaccine from Moderna. “Things are looking up.”

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Jordans contributed from Berlin. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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