The EU is to fast-track approval for updated vaccines that fight the new Covid variants, in a bid to speed up the vaccination rollout in France and the rest of Europe, amid the launch of a new Commission study into the “worrying” strains.
In a statement, the EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “We have analysed the procedure with the European Medicines Agency and we have decided that an improved vaccine to fight against the new variants, that is based on an already-existing vaccine, will not need to go through all the [usual] authorisation steps.
“It will therefore be quicker to have more-adapted vaccines, without reducing safety criteria.”
The EU has received harsh criticism for the speed - or lack thereof - of its vaccination rollout compared to the UK and US, due in part to the speed of its approval procedures.
But the health commissioner defended the bloc, saying: “It is wrong to suggest that the EU has only made mistakes”, and said that the EU had managed to secure the planned delivery of 700 million vaccine doses before the end of the year.
Tomorrow the European Commission is set to launch a new study dedicated to studying the new variants, and to help manufacturers produce more vaccines adapted to the new strains.
The “HERA incubator” programme will “bring together laboratories, health authorities, scientists and the European Commission, with dedicated funds”, said Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
An amount was not specified. HERA refers to the EU’s new agency, the Health Emergency Response Authority, which has been set up to coordinate the EU response to possible future pandemics and health emergencies.
In an interview with news source les Echos, Ms von der Leyen said: “Now, and in parallel to efforts being made on the current vaccines, we must help companies to develop production capacity [of] second-generation vaccines.”
She said: “These new variants are worrying us a lot. There is a global risk that they will multiply, because that is how a virus works ... We must prepare for this [with] better, increased sequencing to detect mutations as quickly as possible.
“We must ensure a permanent exchange of information with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) so that it can speed up its authorisation process for future vaccines adapted to mutations.”
EU vaccine strategy
In the same interview, Ms von der Leyen said that the EU’s response time was not due to problems with ordering, but with production.
She said: “On a global scale, laboratories are encountering difficulties in scaling up production. It's a very complex process and there are bottlenecks, firstly in the supply chain - a vaccine has up to 400 components - but also in moving up the production line to stabilise mass production.”
The president said she had tasked Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton to “work closely with producers, to see where and how we can help them”.
Today's meeting on #COVID19 response focused on:— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) February 15, 2021
•Tracking vaccination progress in the EU
•Helping companies scale up production and eliminate bottlenecks
•Detecting new variants
•Monitoring travel restrictions measures in the EU and ensuring free flow of essential goods pic.twitter.com/wNFRv4VZQZ
She said that all vaccines produced in Europe should stay in Europe, except for those being used as part of the global Covax scheme, which is designed to help supply vaccines to less well-off nations.
She added that vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca - over which a row broke out in recent weeks due to delays in production and delivery - “must prove that it will honour its contract” and “fulfil its promises ... which means delivering the entirety of its orders, even if it needs more time”.
She said: “Our goal is not to have legal conflict, but to have the vaccines.”
When asked if the EU was under too much pressure and at risk of crumbling from the virus, she said: “No, on the contrary. The virus is putting us under pressure, but our response to the crisis is European.
“The recovery plan is a great success and has been possible because we have remained united. Our strategy on vaccines is also - despite everything - a success.
“Yes, the beginnings are difficult and there are many obstacles to overcome. But it has ensured that all states will receive enough vaccines, in the right proportion of their population and at the same time. And that is Europe at its best.
“Imagine if one or two Member States had had access to vaccines, and the others had not. It would have literally torn Europe apart.”
New variants in France
It comes as France remains on alert against the spread of the new variants.
Health authorities in Dunkirk today said that 70% of positive tests were showing as the UK variant, while Grand Est and Moselle have discovered a higher-than-average rate of the Brazilian and South African strains.