Delay in Pfizer vaccine shipments frustrates Europe, Canada

Frustration is mounting from Europe to North America over reduced shipments of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine while the US pharmaceutical company increases production capacity at its Belgian plant. Governments say it is costing critical time during the early stages of the rollout to care homes and hospital personnel.

Italy has threatened legal action. The leader of Canada’s most populous province said Pfizer’s chief executive should be chased “with a firecracker.” A top European Union official icily invoked the principle of “pacta sunt servanda,” a Latin phrase meaning “agreements must be kept.”

The EU and many nations are under pressure for what is seen as the slow start to their vaccination campaigns compared to countries like Israel and the United Kingdom. Pfizer compounded the problem last Friday when it announced a temporary reduction in deliveries so it could upscale its Puurs, Belgium plant, which supplies all shots delivered outside the United States.

The delay, which the pharma giant said would last for a few weeks, affects not only the number of people who can get inoculated during that period but also throws off the careful choreography that governments mapped out to get elderly residents and caregivers the required two doses within a strict timetable of several weeks.

A woman receives her second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from an army medic, left, at a vaccination center set up on a mall parking lot in Givataim, central Israel, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“It means huge complications for us,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis says. Similar complaints could be heard in several other EU nations, from Denmark to Belgium.

“Indeed,” adds European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “we were all surprised by the announcement of Pfizer-BioNTech to have a delay.”

The EU now expects Pfizer to deliver across the 27-nation bloc 92% of what was expected over this week and the next one. The missing 8% is expected to be recovered during the week of February 15

Von der Leyen says the immediate challenge would be securing enough doses to make sure people who already had their first shot of Pfizer vaccine received their second within the recommended interval.