EU pivots to Pfizer with world’s biggest Covid-19 vaccine deal as it sues AstraZeneca

The European Union is pivoting to the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus shot with a record agreement to buy up to 1.8 billion doses, as court proceedings in its lawsuit against another major vaccine maker, AstraZeneca, began in Brussels on Wednesday.

The agreement with Pfizer, which is yet to be finalized in an official contract, would be the world’s biggest single deal for a Covid-19 vaccine to date. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the landmark purchase on Friday during a visit to a Pfizer manufacturing plant in Puurs, Belgium, saying the vaccines would be delivered through to 2023. The deal was announced as pressure mounts on developed nations to stop purchasing more doses than their populations need to ensure there are enough for the rest of the world.

An account of the negotiations published Wednesday by the New York Times, based on interviews with von der Leyen, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and other experts and officials, painted a picture of personal diplomacy between the Pfizer and EU chiefs. It related how the pair exchanged regular text messages and calls over months until it became clear Pfizer could supply the EU with far more doses than the 300 million it had already agreed to. “Multiple leaders of the world, they would reach out to me, from presidents or prime ministers and kings, and general secretaries of organizations,” Bourla told the New York Times, explaining that such conversations were not uncommon. Von der Leyen described the difficulties she faced as a leader as it became clear AstraZeneca was not going to deliver on its targets.

“I knew that the upscaling of the deliveries would have a slow start by nature in the beginning, and therefore, I also knew the first quarter was going be tough,” she said. “I did not expect it to be as tough, because we did not include the possibility that AstraZeneca would reduce deliveries by 75%. That was a heavy setback.” Von der Leyen said that the Pfizer deal would include an initial 900 million doses with the option for an additional 900 million, according to the New York Times report. The European Commission did not immediately confirm that detail to CNN. A European Commission spokesperson would not comment on the details outlined in the New York Times report, instead referring CNN to von der Leyen’s remarks on Friday, “where she addressed the importance of a productive relationship between the European Commission and the various stakeholders involved in our vaccine strategy.”