Commission renegotiates vaccine deals to quell overstocking
The European Commission began negotiations with COVID-19 vaccine producers to change the conditions of previously agreed-upon contracts, reacting to increasing pressure from member states that do not want to pay for vaccines they no longer need.
Since last year, Poland has attempted to renegotiate its deal with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, citing low vaccine uptake and the need to pay for deliveries – something the country could no longer afford due to the huge costs of receiving Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian war.
Earlier this month, the Commission gave Poland the green light to renegotiate the deal with Pfizer individually – the first country granted such consent, Polish media reported.
But talks between Poland, Pfizer and the Commission have been ongoing since 12 April 2022 “due to the force majeure related to Russian aggression on Ukraine and its social and economic consequences for the country”, Poland’s Health Ministry told EURACTIV.pl.
“Poland participates in vaccine contracts as its party, as do other member states and is entitled to negotiate with the (vaccine) producer based on the freedom of contract principle,” the Ministry said.
“The European Commission stressed many times that member states are parties of the contracts; consequently, Poland executes its rights and participates in bilateral dialogue to reach an agreement with the producer,” it added.
It added that even if the talks began almost a year ago, no deal has been reached yet.
Countries call Commission to settle with vaccine producers
Poland is not the only country struggling with vaccine overstocking, as other countries have been pressuring the Commission to renegotiate contracts.
Earlier this month, Bulgaria, Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary demanded that the Commission renegotiate the conditions for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines manufactured by Pfizer. The health ministers of the four countries tabled a joint request during an EU Council meeting on 14 March.
“The Commission should seek opportunities to further negotiate with Pfizer, in particular on non-delivery payments, reducing the number of contracted doses, or to take the initiative itself and buy surplus vaccines from member states to donate to regions in need”, the four ministers stated.
Italy, for instance, should receive 61.1 million doses under the EU agreement. With lowering uptake among Italians, the unused doses will likely be 173 million, including those currently in stock. All of this is likely to cost the country about €3 billion.
Health Minister Orazio Schillaci, a nuclear medicine doctor, asked the Commission to renegotiate contracts with suppliers of COVID-19 vaccines. To avoid repeating mistakes and wasting billions of public money, Schillaci called for a “return to purchasing vaccines on a national basis.”
The waste of vaccines “would be difficult for our public opinions to understand; in fact, it would risk paradoxically generating a sense of disaffection toward future vaccine campaigns,” the Italian minister said.
In Germany, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach announced mid-December that 160 million already ordered vaccine doses for 2023 and 2024 will not be needed since demand is lower than foreseen and many are still in stock. He added that the government is in talks with the Commission for permission to cancel or reduce orders.
“National stocks of COVID-19 vaccines are high, while the need for COVID-19 vaccine has decreased,” a ministry spokesperson told public broadcaster ARD at the time. The ministry “is in talks with the European Commission and the vaccine producers for contract adjustments,” they added. Since then, there has not been any update on the state of these negotiations.
Austrian Health Minister Johannes Rauch recently called on the Commission to “significantly” increase pressure on vaccine producers. These companies made “very, very good profits from the pandemic, and now that the situation is better,” a fresh solution must be found, he told reporters ahead of last week’s meeting of EU health ministers.
Austria favours a solution through negotiations rather than unilaterally ending contracts, but “is clearly in favour of upping the pressure,” Rauch said. He added that solutions that are “acceptable to taxpayers” must be found.
In Spain, the country’s Health Ministry and the regions have so far already destroyed more than 6 million COVID-19 doses because they expired, according to Spanish media.
On the other hand, France expressed continuous support to the Commission and the current joint procurement system of COVID-19 vaccines.
“We support the work of the European Commission in the context of these negotiations, in which France is a stakeholder. France supports joint procurement of vaccines, which has been our line from the outset,” the French Health Ministry told EURACTIV.fr.
‘Joint team’ set to change the conditions of vaccine contracts
Negotiations with companies on the delivery doses are handled by the so-called “Joint negotiation team”, which consists of the Commission and several member state representatives, the Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.pl.
It explained that this team reports to a Steering Board consisting of representatives of all member states and the Commission.
“Discussions on the preliminary agreement reached between the Joint Negotiation team and the company are ongoing with member states in the Steering Board,” the spokesperson said, refusing to provide more information on the ongoing discussions. “The outcome of the discussions now needs to be confirmed by the Member States in the Steering Board.”
“COVID-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives and helped mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our health systems and our economies. They continue to be our best insurance policy in the case new variants emerge and to protect our vulnerable citizens,” said Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
“The epidemiological situation has, however, thankfully improved, and we are now working with companies to find solutions to better align vaccine supply with Member States’ needs. It is now important that we continue working together, through the Steering Board, to find a common solution that benefits all Member States,” she added.
(Aleksandra Krzysztoszek | EURACTIV.pl)
[Georgi Gotev, Federica Pascale, Clara Bauer-Babef, Julia Dahm and Fernando Heller contributed to reporting]