Commission still talking to vax companies, while U.S., U.K. secure deals

Other negotiations with the Commission are at earlier stages and could take different forms, the diplomats added. Two of the diplomats said the Commission is also starting talks with smaller biotech companies, including U.S.-based Moderna and German company CureVac.

For these discussions, the Commission is considering “other options,” like loans through the European Investment Bank, one diplomat noted. The EIB has already given loans to BioNTech and CureVac.

Last, the Commission is talking to AstraZeneca about transferring a contract already signed with four EU member countries — the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy — over to the Commission, according to one diplomat. However, there remains a key sticking point regarding liability.

Under the deal between AstraZeneca and the four EU countries, the company will enjoy “some privileges” regarding damages that are against EU law, the diplomat said. “Considering the circumstances” regarding coronavirus vaccines, the EU might accept some of these clauses regarding liability.

The Commission would confirm neither which companies it’s negotiating with, nor when it will secure its first deal, but a spokesperson said the negotiations are going well.

While the Commission is still in the process of talking to numerous companies, other wealthy countries are moving forward with deals.

There’s the U.S. deal announced Wednesday for a vaccine created by BioNTech and Pfizer. This is the third deal the U.S. has secured, following another for 300 million doses of a vaccine from AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, and 100 million doses of another from Novavax. The U.S. has also given billions in research dollars to six vaccine developers, although this doesn’t secure the country with access to the vaccines.

The U.K. also kicked off the week announcing a deal for BioNTech and Pfizer to supply it with up to 30 million vaccine doses, and another 100 million doses from French vaccine company Valneva.

The speed at which the Commission is — or is not — signing deals is not necessarily a bad sign, but could be worrisome for the bloc considering the EU’s earlier bungled attempts to purchase items during the pandemic.

Via the joint procurement agreement, the Commission secured contracts for protective gear and ventilators, but very few countries ever placed their orders.

The Commission is purchasing vaccines through a different mechanism, called the Emergency Support Instrument, created to avoid the bureaucracy of the joint procurement agreement. It had also reshuffled the top of DG SANTE to bring in DG TRADE’s Sandra Gallina to negotiate vaccine deals.

Each EU country has a seat on the vaccine strategy’s steering committee, but six counties — France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland and Sweden — make up the negotiating team, a Commission spokesperson said.

Still, the joint procurement mishaps were a key reason behind the four EU member countries’ forming an alliance so that they could begin negotiating vaccine deals alone, before folding the alliance into the Commission’s work.

The U.K. decided to go it alone earlier this month, explicitly rejecting the EU’s offer to purchase vaccines together.

Another sticking point in the Commission’s vaccine strategy is that countries cannot conduct independent negotiations with vaccine companies. Six EU countries, however, are taking part in Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance’s COVAX facility, which is raising concerns about certain countries negotiating twice for the same vaccines, the three national diplomats said.

Sarah Owermohle contributed reporting.