BRUSSELS, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The European Union will take up its option to buy up to 100 million more doses of Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine after turning down an opportunity in July for a much bigger deal, according to EU officials and an internal document.
The plan comes after some of the vaccine candidates ordered by the EU faced unexpected delays in clinical trials, forcing the bloc and other wealthy nations to rely for now on shots from fewer manufacturers than initially planned.
The Pfizer/BioNTech shot, the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved by Western drugs regulators, is being rolled out in countries including Britain and the United States, and is expected to be approved for use in the EU next week.
The European Commission decided on Tuesday to exercise its option to buy up to 100 million additional doses under an existing contract with Pfizer (PFE.N) and BioNTech (22UAy.DE), a spokesman for the EU executive told Reuters on Thursday. Under the same contract it has already ordered 200 million doses.
"We want to be sure to get more doses because there is big demand," the spokesman said.
An EU official said talks were underway over how many of the extra 100 million doses might be taken.
Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment. BioNTech declined to comment.
Under the EU contract, the two firms have committed to rapidly deliver 200 million doses after regulatory approval for 15.5 euros ($18.8) apiece, EU officials told Reuters in November.
The extra 100 million doses would be supplied at the same price, but with the timetable to be negotiated, EU officials said.
Pfizer and BioNTech have said they can produce about 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021, but they are trying to expand manufacturing capacity as global demand surges. read more
The discussions to order more Pfizer shots, even before the first shipments have arrived, underscore the pressure on the EU to secure more supplies to tackle a pandemic that has already killed 470,000 Europeans and is picking up pace in winter.
That contrasts with EU negotiators' more relaxed stance in the summer, when the pandemic was waning and the bloc was sealing supply deals with multiple vaccine makers.
At a meeting with EU diplomats in July, a Commission official said the EU had declined an offer of 500 million doses from Pfizer and BioNTech because it was too expensive, an internal EU document seen by Reuters shows.
The Commission and BioNTech declined to comment on this. Pfizer did not reply to a request for comment.
With a population of 450 million, the bloc is now relying only on the 200 million Pfizer shots it has already ordered for its first vaccinations, which could start around Christmas.
In January, the EU is also expected to approve the shot developed by Moderna (MRNA.O), but it has an initial order of just 80 million doses, with an option for 80 million more. The Commision this week has also decided to take up that option immediately, the EU spokesman said.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses per person.
Pfizer's vaccines for the EU are produced at a plant in Belgium, but the factory is currently also supplying the United States, Britain and Canada.
"We have millions of doses ready (..) for distribution, depending on regulatory approval," a spokesman for the plant told Reuters, when asked whether shipments to countries outside the EU could temporarily reduce supplies to the bloc.
In total, the EU has booked nearly 1.3 billion vaccines in deals with Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), AstraZeneca/Oxford, Sanofi/GSK and CureVac (5CV.DE), and has options to buy another 660 million.
Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca could submit applications to EU regulators by March, the head of the EU drugs regulator said last week.
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