Europe's COVID shot party gives way to Pfizer vaccine delay headache


FILE PHOTO: The logo of U.S. pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer Inc. is seen at a branch in Zurich, Switzerland October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

ZURICH (Reuters) - Pfizer Inc is facing criticism, and potential legal action, over its surprise move to temporarily delay COVID-19 vaccine shipments to European countries that fear disruptions could throw their inoculation campaigns into disarray.

British, then U.S. and European approvals of Pfizer and BioNTech's mRNA vaccine late last year prompted celebrations, only to be followed by early-2021 anxiety as the reality sets in that vaccinating billions across the world will be fraught with unforeseen hurdles.

In Italy, the COVID-19 special commissioner is considering legal action against Pfizer Inc after the U.S. drugmaker and its German partner told the country it was cutting its deliveries by 29%.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn was annoyed at the hiccup, as at least one state pushes back vaccination centre openings as a consequence.

And Switzerland, where ski resort St Moritz has been broadsided by quarantines at luxury hotels for hundreds of workers and guests after infections with a fast-spreading virus variant, lamented its latest Pfizer/BioNTech delivery this week was skimpier than it had hoped.

Pfizer and BioNTech announced last week that to scale up manufacturing in Europe to deliver many more doses in the second quarter they must first trim production at a Puurs, Belgium, vaccine-making plant.

They aim to be back on schedule by Jan. 25, the companies said.

The reassurances, however, seem to be providing little comfort for countries that want shots sooner rather than later.

"We discussed what (legal) action to take to protect Italian citizens and their health in all civil and criminal venues," Italy's COVID-19 commissioner, Domenico Arcuri, said. "These actions will be taken starting in the next few days."

BioNTech declined comment on Wednesday on growing dissent among countries it is helping supply and referred to its statement on Friday about supply cuts.

DELIVERY DISRUPTIONS

The pain is being felt further afield than Europe. On Tuesday, Canada said it would not receive any Pfizer vaccines next week, adding more pain for provinces already complaining about a shortage of supplies.

Providing some hope, as the world struggles to tame a pandemic that has killed more than 2 million people, a study whose authors include BioNTech founders Ugur Sahin and Oezlem Tuereci concluded their vaccine is likely to protect against the more-infection British virus variant spreading worldwide.

Chinese state media have also targeted Pfizer/BioNTech, and other vaccine makers, in articles questioning their shots' safety after reports of elderly deaths.

The reports came after Western scientists criticised the insufficient data disclosure in China's vaccine trials.

Much of Europe's focus was on disruption in deliveries though.

Adding to those concerns, some nations are failing to regularly get six doses from each vial, as approved by regulators, reducing the number of shots available.

Swiss Federal Ministry of Health vice director Nora Kronig told reporters at a press briefing in Bern delays were due to Pfizer's temporary closure of a small production line in Belgium as part of measures that would result in boosting total vaccine production volumes at the facility.

"The delivery that arrived yesterday was reduced," Kronig said, adding she's optimistic things will be back on track soon.

"We've had reassurances that we'll receive (planned deliveries)... during the first quarter."

Even so, North-Rhine Westphalia, the most populous of Germany's 16 states with 18 million people, is delaying the opening of new vaccination centres to Feb. 8.

In Britain, the first nation to approve the vaccine, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country's vaccine programme was on track to hit mid-February targets.

Still he acknowledged "constraints on supply".

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by John Miller in Zurich; Editing by Josephine Mason and Nick Macfie)

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