Germany backs EU export restrictions on vaccine after supply cuts

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s health minister supported European Union proposals to introduce restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines on Tuesday as tensions grew with AstraZeneca and Pfizer over sudden supply cuts just a month after the bloc started vaccinating citizens.

FILE PHOTO: A medical staff member receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at the CHIREC Delta Hospital in Brussels, Belgium January 21, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

The EU has proposed setting up a register of vaccine exports, amid frustration over delays in deliveries of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 shot and other supply problems.

“I can understand that there are production problems but then it must affect everyone in the same way,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told ZDF television.

“This is not about Europe first but about Europe’s fair share,” he said, adding it therefore made sense to have export limits on vaccines.

Separately, a spokesman for the minister joined AstraZeneca in dismissing reports by two German newspapers that the British drugmaker’s COVID-19 vaccine was less effective in the elderly.

Spahn said he expected European authorities to approve the third vaccine against COVID-19 on Friday.

Late on Monday, Handelsblatt and Bild each reported that the vaccine had an efficacy of less than 10% in those over 65 and that the German government was bracing for the European healthcare regulator to only clear it for those below that age.

AstraZeneca described the reports as “completely incorrect”.

When asked about the prospect of an approval only for younger adults, Spahn’s spokesman said this was up to EU regulators and that AstraZeneca trials had a lower rate of elderly participants than competing vaccine developers.

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AstraZeneca told the 27-country EU on Friday it could not meet supply targets for its vaccine up to the end of March - a further blow to the bloc’s pandemic efforts after Pfizer announced a temporary slowdown in supplies in January.

AstraZeneca said on Monday its Chief Executive had told the EU it was doing everything it can to bring the vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.

An EU official has told Reuters AstraZeneca had received an upfront payment of 336 million euros ($408 million) when the EU sealed a deal with the company in August for at least 300 million doses and an option for another 100 million. The deal was the first signed by the bloc to secure COVID-19 shots.

That was after the United States in May secured 300 million doses for up to $1.2 billion, and Britain, also in May, secured 100 million doses for 84 million pounds ($114 million).

Britain’s vaccine deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi said that although supplies were tight, he was confident Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna would meet their commitments.

“Any new manufacturing process is going to have challenges, it’s lumpy and bumpy, (then) it gets better, it stabilises and improves going forward,” he told BBC TV on Tuesday.

Spahn said it was encouraging that the number of new coronavirus cases was falling in Germany and that if that trend continues, a decision can be taken on future restrictions.

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Schools and nurseries would be the first places to re-open, he added.

German hospitals association DKG said on Tuesday that about 4,600 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care in the country, down from a peak of 5,781 on Jan 4.

“The lockdown is working. But still, this is not the time to sound the all-clear,” said DKG head Georg Baum.

($1 = 0.8244 euros)

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Reporting by Madeline Chambers in Berlin, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Kirsti Knolle and Catherine Evans