EU and Pfizer renegotiate controversial vaccine contract

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The European Commission and U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer have renegotiated a massive contract for COVID-19 vaccine doses that the EU entered into at the height of the pandemic.

The Commission announced that the two parties had agreed Pfizer would spread out deliveries over the course of the next four years, into 2027, and to reduce the total amount of doses down from the 450 million that were due to be delivered this year. However, the Commission didn’t disclose the new total in its announcement. When asked by POLITICO about the revised delivery figure, Commission Health Spokesperson Stefan de Keersmaecker referred POLITICO to EU member countries for a response.

“Vaccine strategies or vaccine programs are designed and implemented by the member states,” said de Keersmaecker.

The Commission had previously obtained a number of concessions from Pfizer, but these always stopped short of a reduction in doses.

The financial terms of the deal are also not public, but the Commission said that the bloc retained the possibility to buy the remainder of the original 450 million doses, and that it was paying extra for the option — something that ministers have previously criticized as a “cancellation fee.” In practice, this increases the price per dose, though the overall price tag would be lower.

The talks have dragged for over a year and have been marked by acrimony — at least from the part of a group of Central and Eastern European countries that have bitterly opposed the terms of the contract that they’d entered into.

The contract in question was signed in May 2021 and was originally for 900 million doses doses of the vaccine that was jointly developed with Germany’s BioNTech, with the possibility to exercise an option for another 900 million doses. Eventually, a total of 1.1 billion shots of the mRNA vaccine were contracted by the bloc — worth €21.5 billion according to vaccine prices reported by the Financial Times.

450 million doses were due to be supplied in 2023, though deliveries were put on pause while the negotiations were ongoing. Already in April last year, Poland announced that it was not accepting any more deliveries of vaccines, complaining of an oversupply.

A total of nine other countries from the region joined Poland in lobbying for a renegotiation, complaining that they were stuck buying doses that they no longer needed, at a time of economic difficulty caused by the energy shock, and while having to spend money to take care of refugees from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The group of countries wanting to renegotiate the contract also have lower vaccination rates than their Western European counterparts.

In an unusual move, Poland went as far as sending a letter to Pfizer’s shareholders where it laid out its reasons for wanting a renegotiated deal, as it sought to heap pressure on the U.S. drugmaker.

The dustup has also focused attention on Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s personal role in securing the original contract | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The dustup has also focused attention on the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s personal role in securing the original contract. According to the New York Times, the boss of the EU executive exceptionally negotiated with Pfizer’s Chief Executive Albert Bourla directly, over text messages. But the content of the messages has been shrouded in secrecy, with the Commission refusing to even confirm their existence.

The long-standing negotiations raise the question of why such a large contract was entered into with deliveries so far in the future — in 2022 and 2023 — when the pandemic conditions might have changed, without a clause to negotiate down doses.