Austria, Denmark Break Ranks With EU to Produce Vaccines With Israel

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Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a news conference in Vienna, yesterday.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a news conference in Vienna, yesterday. Credit: LISI NIESNER / REUTERS

Austria broke ranks with the European Union on Tuesday and said it would work together with Israel and Denmark to produce second-generation vaccines against mutations of the coronavirus.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Austria and Denmark, as members of the First Mover Group founded by Kurz, would work with Israel on vaccine production against mutations of the coronavirus and jointly research treatment options.

"We must prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent only on the EU for the production of second-generation vaccines," the conservative chancellor said in a statement on Tuesday.

Danish Prime Minister Danish Mette Frederiksen was also critical of the EU's vaccine programme.

"I don't think it can stand alone, because we need to increase capacity. That is why we are now fortunate to start a partnership with Israel," she told reporters on Monday.

When asked whether Denmark and Austria wanted to take unilateral action in obtaining vaccines, Frederiksen said: "You can call it that."

The announcement is a rebuke to the EU's joint vaccine procurement program for member states which has been criticized for being too slow to agree to deals with manufacturers.

Production problems and supply chain bottlenecks have also slowed deliveries to the bloc, delaying the roll-out of vaccines.

While the decision that the EU procures vaccines for member states was correct in principle, Kurz said the European Medicines Agency had been too slow to approve vaccines and lambasted supply bottlenecks from pharmaceutical companies.

"We must therefore prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent only on the EU for the production of second-generation vaccines," he said in a statement.

Renee Gallo-Daniel, head of the Austrian vaccine manufacturers' association, told broadcaster ORF that a local vaccine production was important.

Although it would take months or years to set up or refurbish a production unit for the purpose, it was sensible to think so far into the future, especially with regard to future pandemics, Gallo-Daniel said.

Experts reckon that Austria will have to vaccinate two-thirds of the population, equivalent to more than 6 million people annually, in coming years, Kurz said.

Kurz is due to travel to Israel this week with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to see Israel's rapid vaccine roll-out up close.

He said he would inspect pharmaceutical companies with domestic production including Pfizer, Novartis, Polymun and Boehringer Ingelheim as well as speak to leading scientists and physicians on Tuesday.

Germany last month set up a task force to address bottlenecks in the supply chain of vaccine production and boost local manufacturing to protect itself against future pandemics.

The European Commission said member states were free to strike separate deals should they wish to. "It's not that the strategy unravelled or it goes against the strategy, not at all," spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker said.

An EMA spokeswoman did not have an immediate comment.

First movers?

Israel, which was quick to sign contracts for and to approve vaccines from U.S. drug makers Pfizer and Moderna, has given 94 doses per 100 people and the EU just seven, according to monitoring by Our World in Data.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made the campaign a showcase of his bid for re-election on March 23, has spoken of "an international corporation for manufacturing vaccines".

None of the three countries has significant vaccine making capacity, however, raising questions over how realistic their ambitions are to gain greater self-sufficiency.

A growing number of EU countries have placed side orders for vaccines from Russia and China, even though the EMA has yet to rule on whether they are both safe and effective.

Slovakia said on Monday it had ordered 2 million doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine and expects half to arrive this month to help it end a surge in infections.

The neighboring Czech Republic - tackling the worst COVID-19 outbreak of any EU country - is also considering ordering Russia's Sputnik V.

Hungary, meanwhile, has taken delivery of a vaccine developed by China's Sinopharm, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban announcing on Sunday that he had received the shot.

The three vaccines so far cleared for use in the EU, made by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca, rely on production in countries including Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Pfizer, which declined comment for this story, has said it will make 2 billion doses this year - 70% of them in the EU - and has conducted extensive research into their effectiveness against coronavirus variants.

A spokesman for Boehringer Ingelheim said its focus was not on human vaccines "but if we receive requests we will of course look into them."

DPA contributed to this report.

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