Minister: Pfizer supply cuts mean COVID-19 vaccination rate will slow down

Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center).
Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center). Source: ERR

News that biotech firm Pfizer/BioNTech, manufacturer of the first coronavirus vaccine to reach Estonia, is halving its supplies of doses in the near future means that the pace of inoculations in Estonia will also slow down, social affairs minister Tanel Kiik (Center) said Friday evening.

The reduction in flow of vaccine doses equally affects several other EU countries in the northeastern region of the union, including Finland and Latvia, with six of them writing an official letter to the European Commission, overseeing coronavirus vaccine procurements, expressing their worries.

Tanel Kiik said Friday that while the next week's vaccinations will continue as planned, in the following weeks, prioritization will have to take place and the overall pace of vaccine administration – standing at well over 16,000 people as of Friday – will start to slow.

"Unfortunately, it is not possible to move forward at such a pace," Kiik said, according to Kiik.

Kiik: Pfizer acted unilaterally

Speaking at a press conference, Kiik said that while U.S. firm Pfizer/BioNTech had promised over 13,000 doses of its coronavirus vaccine next week, in reality about half that total will reach Estonia.

Kiik added that Pfizer had acted unilaterally in cutting supply, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Friday night.

"A requirement for an understanding attitude is an open, transparent, inclusive exchange of information. In this case, the principle has not been observed. A unilateral decision has been made," Kiik said.

Pfizer/BioNTech coroanvirus vaccine supplies are part of a pan-EU procurement process overseen by the European Commission. The fall in supply affects other EU countries and not only Estonia.

Pfizer's plan is to reduce supplies now in order to boost them later

BNS reports that Kiik said Friday that new information on the impending reduction in vaccine supply had been trickling in since Thursday.

While subsequent vaccine delivery volumes from Pfizer will rise, this will not compensate for the current fall, nor will the arrival of other manufacturers' products.

Kiik said: "There is only one vaccine available in the EU at the moment. Other manufacturers currently on the market are not compensating for the volumes."

Pfizer later said on Saturday that the supply delays would only last around a week.

Social affairs deputy secretary-general: Estonia one of first countries to find out

Maris Jesse, deputy secretary general at the Ministry of Social Affairs for health, said that the news had come as a shock to her on Friday morning, adding Estonia was one of the first countries to become aware of the news.

"Estonia was one of the first to hear about it. Some countries heard about it from us," she added.

Social affairs ministry deputy secretary Maris Jesse. Source: ERR

Jesse went on that next week's inoculations would go ahead, echoing Tanel Kiik's statement on the matter: "We in Estonia were ready to speed up vaccination because it is a necessity. Fortunately, we left half of the delivery for the first week in reserve, in preparation for the possibility that there are unexpected delays in delivery, in which case we would not have interrupt vaccination. As a result, this news will not cause vaccinations to be postponed until next week."

Pfizer Estonia representative: Company under a lot of pressure

Pfizer in Estonia Anneli Taal said that when the European Commission and the countries made their plans, the hope had been for more manufacturers on the market, with vaccination would be in full swing by this time.

Competitors are only now entering the market, she added.

Taal said: "Unfortunately, it went differently. [U.S. biotech firm] Moderna also entered the market today and has not been able to increase production volumes. Pfizer has been under a lot of pressure. In cooperation with the EU, ways have been sought to meet the high demand. On the one hand, we have suggested to use vaccines as efficiently as possible."

Taal told AK that Estonia will receive about 7,000 doses of the vaccine, based on the principle that one vial equates to five doses, i.e. even lower than the 50 percent planned delivery Tanel Kiik had mentioned.

She added that according to her initial information, the following consignment would be larger, however.

Baltic and Nordic countries address concerns in letter to European Commission

Health and other ministers from all three Baltic States, along with Finland, Denmark and Sweden, issued a letter to the European Commission expressing their deep concern about the delays, which they say may affect the overall vaccination process both in terms of sustainability and credibility.

The address read: "Some [countries] were given a deadline of February 8, 2021, some were given no information on the duration of the intended decreased deliveries."

The six nations demanded an explanation from Pfizer/BioNTech, via the commission.

"We request you to urgently engage with BioNTech/Pfizer to demand a public explanation of the situation and to stress the need to ensure stability and transparency of timely deliveries," the address continued.

Kiik, Jesse: Care homes vaccinations remain priority

Tanel Kiik had also noted that nothing had been said about reducing delivery volumes in order to increase them later.

Social affairs ministry deputy secretary Maris Jesse added that care homes remain a priority, with vaccinations continuing next week and orders for the first half of the week to be met.

Beyond that, the rate is subject to further calculations, she added.

Tanel Kiik also said that care homes will remain a priority in the coming weeks.

Around 10,000 doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines have arrived in Estonia, in three batches, with the company saying that around 600,000 doses are due by the end of September under the current agreement.

Ursula von der Leyen: Delays won't affect EU as a whole

Anneli Taal, Pfizer Estonia representative, said that the company had agreed in conjunction with the European Commission to increase capacity, with deliverries due to be quadrupled, but that this would require a cut-back first, with smaller volumes through the rest of January, and deliveries resuming normal service in February or March.

Tanel Kiik said that around 100,000 people vaccinated by the end of March was the current target, AK reported.

European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen says that the delays will not affect the pace of vaccination across the EU as a whole, with all shipments due in the first quarter of 2021 set to arrive.

Norway's Health authority said that it, too, will see reduced Pfizer/BioNTech deliveries.

While Norway is not in the EU, under its agreement with the union it works closely in COVID-19 vaccine procurement.

The country is tackling the problem initially by making use of set-aside coronavirus vaccine doses, AK reported.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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