Four EU member states have demanded that the European Commission renegotiate the terms of the contract with Pfizer for the continuous supply of its COVID-19 vaccines. The joint request, calling for a review of the deal, was submitted by the countries’ health ministers during an EU Council meeting on Tuesday, March 14th.
The initiative was championed by Bulgaria, which announced on March 8th that it had the support of seven other member states. In the end, however, only three of them joined Sofia in signing the statement—Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary.
The ministers involved voiced deep concerns about a proposed new addition to Pfizer’s vaccine supply agreement, saying that the contract must take into account the needs and budgets of all EU countries, asking for a “new, fairer deal in the public interest.”
The source of most problems cited is financial and tied to the required purchasing of new doses under the joint procurement, even when public demand for vaccinations had dropped significantly. This oversupply has led to large quantities of the vaccine expiring and, as a result, having to be destroyed.
In addition to renegotiating the contract, the ministers are also asking the commission to seek opportunities to negotiate further with Pfizer on non-delivery payments, reducing the number of contracted doses, or buying surplus vaccines from member states to donate to regions in need.
The ministers then turned to Pfizer directly, asking it to take a more responsible approach. “We call on Pfizer to maintain confidence in the vaccination process, to assume its responsibility towards EU citizens and Member States,” the statement says, “and act in good faith towards a solution, fair to all: in the name of the common good, not only business interest.”
The Bulgarian position on the Pfizer contract has been known for some time now. The country’s caretaker government criticized the current contract for assuming all EU members would have the same needs. It also finds fault with the current agreement claiming that it fails to define specific quantities and their expiration date, and that the joint procurement requires payment before actual delivery.
The outrage is justified, as Bulgaria was forced to scrap large quantities of expired vaccines in the past. Earlier this month, Sofia announced that more than 1.3 million doses of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines would have to be disposed of because they were past their expiration date. This is part of the 2.8 million doses set to be destroyed in the near future. Last year, 2.3 million doses had to be disposed of.
This brings the total to 5.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines that were effectively purchased for no purpose (potentially costing Bulgaria $75 to $100 million), surpassing the number of doses administered, which currently stands at 4.6 million.
Furthermore, Sofia argues, more than 650,000 doses will expire in January/February 2024, and it is already evident that these quantities will also have to be destroyed. The government has explained that contracts do not allow for the donation of unneeded vaccines to developing countries.
Under the current contract, however, each member state will have additional booster shots delivered over the course of 2023. But as Bulgarian Health Minister Assen Medzhidiev said, it is “irrational” for his country to buy more vaccines that Sofia will end up having to destroy. Bulgaria’s vaccination rate stands at just over 30%, which means that over two-thirds of the population is not even qualified to get a booster shot.