Breton aims to reset EU’s vaccine narrative

PUURS, Belgium — Slapping a shiny sticker of the EU flag on a box of Pfizer vaccines was the photo-op the Commission needed.

After spending months under siege from EU capitals and pharma heads over Europe’s sluggish vaccine rollout, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton is seeking to change the narrative via a high-profile jaunt to the Continent’s drug factories. Monday’s stop: Puurs, a small Belgian town 30 minutes from Brussels, home to a Pfizer factory that’s the top vaccine producer in Europe.

Breton, who took the job leading the Commission’s Vaccine Task Force less than three weeks ago, has made himself the public face of the EU’s fight to secure vaccines by visiting the facilities where they are made. He started on February 10 with Thermo Fisher Scientific, which has been subcontracted to make AstraZeneca’s drug substance in Belgium, followed by Lonza, which is doing that work for Moderna in Switzerland, last Friday.

But the biggest jewel in the EU’s vaccine manufacturing crown is the Puurs Pfizer factory, which currently makes 50 million doses a month of the mRNA vaccine, developed with BioNTech. In June, it’s set to expand to 100 million doses per month, with the goal of sending nearly 1 billion by the end of the year. Breton, accompanied by a group of around 15 journalists, took a tour of the factory on Monday, as employees wearing disposable masks and heating up their dinners looked on at the spectacle.

Pfizer representatives first showed off freezers filled with the “pizza boxes” that store the precious mRNA vaccines at minus 75 Celsius. These were then stacked into larger containers holding enough vials to give 6,000 people a single jab, stuffed with dry ice and sealed for delivery to all 27 EU countries, before Breton slapped an EU flag on the back — all while cameras clicked and videos rolled. 

The operations in Puurs are now running smoothly, and BioNTech/Pfizer will increase deliveries in the spring ahead of schedule to supply the EU with 75 million doses. But just over a month ago the Belgian facility was the first site of the EU’s manufacturing hurdles, as an expansion at the end of January caused a weeks-long decrease in deliveries around the bloc.

The issue caused uproar among EU leaders and frustrated the Commission. But the anger was superseded only a week later by AstraZeneca’s announcement it would deliver at least 75 million fewer doses than expected to the bloc in the first quarter of 2021. Then, as AstraZeneca and the Commission publicly traded blows over the delays, Moderna said it would also fall short throughout February, forcing EU countries to cancel vaccination appointments.

Breton has the ambitious but ambiguous task of speeding things up. His job includes mapping production sites, talking to manufacturers and fixing bottlenecks — but also convincing Europeans that the Commission is doing everything it can to get things moving.

“There is a lot of anxiety for our European citizens, and to tell you the truth, for the rest of the world,” Breton told the journalists with him Monday. “It’s extremely important … to engage and to discuss and to show … what we are doing.”

“My message is that we’ve put everything in place and we will get through — but it’s a fight,” he added.

Breton wants to show he means business — partially because he knows how to speak business. The former tech CEO is on the phone with vaccine producers every day, he told reporters, relaying the issues they’re having with sourcing vials, specialized filters and disposable bags to use in bioreactors.

Drugmakers are seeking supplies of this crucial equipment at the same time, Breton said. “We need to make sure that the supply chain is working well, that there is no delay in customs  … Timing is absolutely critical.”

Long winter

The EU faces a long winter with further delays getting life-saving vaccines into millions of eager Europeans’ arms — the next vaccine candidates from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax can’t even start supplying the EU until the spring. 

For now, Breton is only focused on the production of the three EU-approved vaccines — despite the manufacturing hurdles that loom for those upcoming shots. 

“I’m just focusing where I know that we need now to ramp up,” he said. “But as soon as we get authorization, we can start working and help companies.” 

EU diplomats have already raised concerns that Johnson & Johnson has to send its EU drug substance to the U.S. to be put into vials. Breton pointed out that some of this is being done in reverse, too, with U.S. drug substances being filled in the EU.  “It is really more and more a partnership between us,” he said. “There is not a single country that can do it alone. We need each other.”

And it’s not just countries that are being forced into working together: BioNTech had to partner with Pfizer to manufacture its vaccines; Moderna had little manufacturing experience, especially in Europe, and found Swiss and Spanish factories to make its vaccine; Oxford had no experience with large-scale production until it began working with AstraZeneca.

And it’s not just Europe that’s can’t manage to do it alone. Breton pointed to Russia, which is struggling to produce enough of its two-dose adenovirus vaccine, Sputnik V

“Russians are very good at science and they’re good in physics, they’re good in mathematics, they’re good in astrophysics, they’re good in biology,” he said. “And the fact is that they just can’t produce [Sputnik V] massively,” he said.

“It’s so difficult to produce, they’re coming to see [Europe] to say: Could you manufacture?” he added.

Still, the bloc has watched on as the U.K. sped ahead with its vaccine program and inoculated more than a quarter of its adults. The speed of the rollout meant the British government on Monday could announce plans to ease lockdowns, alongside new data showing vaccines were dramatically reducing COVID-19 hospitalizations. 

Officials and activists have criticized the Commission for getting versed on vaccine manufacturing only now, arguing it should have been doing this early last year, when the pandemic first emerged. 

Asked if the Commission was too slow, Breton sighed: “Bah, here I am.”

Camille Gijs contributed to this article.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial. 

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