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08 February, 2023
 
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EU commissioner defends deal on older vaccines

Health commissioner pushes back on criticism as EU’s biggest contract comes under growing scrutiny

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Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides went on Cypriot state radio on Monday calling on EU citizens to get vaccinated with booster shots already made available to member states, a position she defended amid growing social and scientific doubt about a procurement strategy that included cozy texts between pharmaceutical companies and the bloc’s executives.

Kyriakides was a guest on morning state radio Monday in her native Cyprus, an EU member state where authorities have been struggling to convince people to get a booster shot against the coronavirus.

“It’s a pity,” said Kyriakides, who looked back at a time when there was a vaccine shortage but now there were “plenty of updated booster shots available.”

Last month Omicron variant B1 and B2 vaccines were made available after the European Medicines Agency recommended the authorization of two vaccines adapted to provide broader protection against COVID-19.

Kyriakides said the first variant vaccines that got approved were jabs against Omicron variants B1 and B2, adding that the European Commission already had in place signed contracts with Pfizer and Moderna for the specific jabs.

Political fallout

But the contracts remain the subject of an investigation by members on the European Parliament's COVID-19 special committee, whose chair, Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, said recently she "deeply regretted" a decision by Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla to pull out of an appointment with the lawmakers.

'We should have sent these vaccines back to the manufacturer. It's like buying last week’s lottery' Kostrikis said

The committee is seeking information about text messages exchanged between Bourla and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that preceded the multibillion-euro vaccine contract.

According to media reports, the exchanged texts were described as “cozy” while the Commission has formally refused to provide any type of records or other information of pre-contract discussions with Pfizer.

Last month the European Court of Auditors found that an established procedure was not followed in a contract for up to 1.8 billion doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine that had been concluded in May 2021.

Scientific doubt

But eyebrows were also raised within the scientific community on the pre-summer deal, when variants targeted by the updated vaccines in EU’s biggest contract already subsided by the time the Commission had signed on the dotted line.

“The Cypriot citizen is not a guinea pig,” says Cypriot scientist Leondios Kostrikis.

Kostrikis, who is known for having discovered a hybrid strain dubbed DeltaCron, said last week he did not understand why people needed to get jabbed with Omicron 1, a wave that got eliminated earlier this year, calling instead for Omicron 5 vaccines expected in a few weeks’ time.

“We should have sent these vaccines back to the manufacturer. It's like buying last week’s lottery,” Kostrikis said.

Kyriakides rejects criticism

“I do not accept this kind of interpretation,” Kyriakides told Cypriot state radio on Monday morning, adding that both the European Medicines Agency and the European Commission saw to it that “all member states would have updated vaccines as soon as those got approved.”

“A lot is being said on many levels but let’s stick a little bit to what we know from science,” said the commissioner who defended the deal by arguing older variants were still around and the jabs in question were only meant as boosters.

Heath experts say people especially those in vulnerable groups who get the new boosters should expect better protection against Omicron when compared to the original vaccines. But they stop short of predicting how much better the jabs will perform.

“They should get vaccinated, they should not wait around because we see an increase in the number of cases,” Kyriakides said, adding she would be the first person to wish for the rise to go away quickly and no new mutation to emerge this winter.

Back in May 2021, when the Pfizer contract was signed, Kyriakides had announced that a “national analysis” was underway in member states to find vaccine-hesitant populations where targeted information campaigns could be launched to tackle any misinformation.

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