As alarm grows over Europe’s dwindling vaccine supplies, Bayer could offer its factories to the cause

January 18, 2021, 11:38 AM UTC

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.

Factory modifications have led Pfizer and BioNTech, producers of the EU’s main coronavirus vaccine thus far, to cut deliveries in the next few weeks. However, a significant boost to European vaccine supplies may be on the horizon—though don’t expect volumes to rise significantly until the next quarter.

On Sunday, the chief executive of pharma giant Bayer, which already has a deal with Germany’s CureVac for the development and deployment of its candidate COVID-19 vaccine, said his company could also soon be lending its compatriot some production muscle.

“We are ready to pull out all the stops for this,” Werner Baumann told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “It’s not primarily about financial considerations, but about making the vaccine available as quickly as possible.”

Bayer and CureVac

The initial deal between Bayer and CureVac—whose potential vaccine U.S. President Donald Trump last year tried to secure for Americans only—was announced earlier this month. Under its terms, Bayer will handle supply-chain issues, regulatory affairs and other aspects of the planned rollout.

CureVac is projecting the production of up to 300 million doses of its two-dose vaccine for this year, with partners such as Germany’s Wacker Chemie and France’s Fareva aiding its manufacturing process. Twice as many would be produced in 2022, under current plans.

However, that’s all speculative until CureVac’s vaccine gains authorization from the European Medicines Agency. It is yet to conclude its large-scale Phase 3 trial of the vaccine, the results from which will inform the EMA’s decision. A CureVac spokesperson confirmed Monday that interim results are still expected this quarter, with a rollout in Q2.

That means the CureVac vaccine will do nothing to alleviate the current supply problems announced by Pfizer and BioNTech a few days ago.

Pfizer and BioNTech

On Friday, several EU countries complained that the U.S. drugmaker and its smaller German partner had told them they “would not be able to fully meet the already promised delivery volume for the next three to four weeks.”

As it was only last week that EU deliveries began for an alternative vaccine—the offering from Moderna—that seemed to be a major short-term blow for European coronavirus inoculation. Belgian health authorities said it was “incomprehensible” that Pfizer had not consulted them before announcing the delivery cuts.

The production squeeze for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (the first to gain EMA authorization) is down to modifications being made at Pfizer’s plant in Puurs, Belgium. The companies said Friday that the changes were being made to allow the delivery of “significantly more doses in the second quarter.”

This is the factory that is supplying the whole of the EU. However, also on Friday, BioNTech secured the approval of local authorities in the central German town of Marburg to produce the vaccine there, in a plant it took over from Novartis last September.

So production of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will commence in Marburg next month, with the goal of making 250 million doses in the first half of this year.

And, although the modifications at the Puurs plant will cause a minor dip in production there over the next few weeks, Pfizer and BioNTech say increased delivery from mid-February will allow them “to deliver the fully committed quantity of vaccine doses in the first quarter and significantly more in the second quarter.”

Meeting commitments

Pfizer and BioNTech are supposed to deliver up to 600 million doses of their vaccine in Europe this year, with 75 million due to arrive in Q2. Moderna has committed to delivering 160 million doses of its vaccine this year, including 10 million by the end of March.

AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, whose vaccine should be much cheaper and easier to distribute than those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have also applied for EMA approval. The agency’s executive director, Emer Cooke, said Friday that she hoped the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, already approved in the U.K., could be green-lit in the EU at the end of January.

Cooke also said she hoped to see an application from Johnson & Johnson next month.

Even though the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is already taking place at unprecedented speed, European authorities are also scrambling to tamp down rising infection numbers that are increasingly being boosted by new, faster-moving variants of the novel coronavirus. For now, tightened lockdown restrictions are their answer to the challenge, with mass inoculation promising the only way out.

It is therefore unsurprising that many perceive the rollout’s early stages as moving too slowly, leading to firy political debates in countries including Germany, where only 1 million first doses have been administered so far—in the U.K., by comparison, 3.8 million people have already received their first jab.

Bayer CEO Baumann has little patience for such criticism. “[Germany’s] federal government has done a lot right, but you don’t do everything right in times of crisis,” he told Welt am Sonntag.

Read More

COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health