Fearing a collapse in its health care system, the European Union will call upon U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech to deliver fresh supplies of the coronavirus vaccine.
The 27 EU member states authorized Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to purchase over 180 million more doses from the two companies, including a potentially large number of vaccines developed specifically to target the new, highly contagious Omicron strain.
The vaccine supply situation in Europe is becoming critical. After assuming his new post last week as Germany’s health minister, Karl Lauterbach discovered Europe’s biggest economy faces a vaccine shortage for the first quarter of 2022.
“Even as we battle at this time Delta still, the Omicron variant is really threatening us,” von der Leyen told reporters on Friday.
“It is spreading at a ferocious pace and potentially has the risk of escaping our vaccines—at least partially. We know that our health care systems are overstretched right now,” she continued.
BioNTech and Pfizer, which together will produce an estimated 4 billion doses next year, must deliver a combined 900 million doses to the EU Commission for 2022 and 2023.
The bloc also possesses an option for an additional 900 million that can be exercised in installments, and Friday’s authorization to order 180 million more doses would represent the first such tranche.
Tailored to Omicron
A spokeswoman for BioNTech told Fortune the company is in discussions with the EU on how to quickly provide more vaccine doses to the bloc’s 450 million inhabitants. “As soon as there is anything to announce, we will do so,” she said.
It’s unclear at this point whether EU health officials will conclude that existing vaccines are ineffective against Omicron and call for a new one to be developed.
Created in Germany by BioNTech against the Alpha version of the COVID virus, the Comirnaty vaccine has proved to be effective at combating severe illnesses brought on by Delta.
BioNTech has said its mRNA technology is flexible enough that it needs just 100 days’ time to develop and produce a new COVID vaccine tailored to a new variant. This would mean it would be able to deliver the first doses as early as the end of March.
If the EU decides a new vaccine specifically tailored for the Omicron spike protein is necessary, the contracts stipulate it will be the preferred customer and will receive the doses at no added cost over the existing price of Comirnaty.
“We have to be ready should the need arise,” a spokesman for the EU Commission told Fortune.
Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.