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Commission proposes Covid-19 vaccine strategy for EU

Strategy aims to pool vaccine development risks and ensure fair and rapid dissemination

The European Commission has set out an EU strategy for supporting the development of vaccines against Covid-19 and ensuring fair access to any effective vaccines among member states.

Central to the strategy, unveiled on 17 June, is a promise to buy potential vaccines from pharmaceutical companies before their effectiveness has been proved in clinical trials, known as advance purchase agreements.

The EU would jointly bear some development and upfront manufacturing costs using part of a €2.7 billion emergency support funding instrument.

A board of Commission and member state experts would be tasked with picking the most promising vaccine candidates, based on available evidence of efficacy, cost and EU production capacity, among other considerations.

“Every month gained in the deployment of a vaccine will save many lives, many jobs and many billions of euros,” the Commission said in its communication on the strategy.

Allocation of vaccines among member states would be calculated according to their population.

The Commission asked for European Parliament and member state approval to temporarily remove restrictions on the use of genetically modified organisms for the development of vaccine candidates. Some candidates use modified versions of viruses, and the Commission said a patchwork implementation of GMO restrictions across the EU would be “likely to cause significant delay” to clinical trials.

It also said that low- and middle-income countries could get earlier access to vaccines if pharmaceutical companies make use of European regulatory expertise. The strategy, and in particular this aspect, was welcomed by the Wellcome Trust biomedical research funder.

Wellcome’s head of global policy Alex Harris said: “We are encouraged by the EU’s ambition to not only reserve future vaccines for their own citizens but also for low- and middle-income countries at the same time… The EU and other countries must commit to securing only enough doses for their priority populations, so that sufficient doses are available for priority populations in low- and middle-income countries.”

A day earlier, the Commission also opened a public consultation on a planned wider pharmaceutical strategy. The plan for intervention in the industry will aim to support innovation but, much like the Covid-19 vaccine plan, one focus is on securing drug supplies.

The pharma strategy is intended to inform the recently proposed €9.4bn EU4Health programme and align with work funded by Horizon Europe, the 2021-27 EU R&D programme.