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Coronavirus vaccine rollouts worldwide suffered a severe blow on Friday as Pfizer would delay delivery of the bumps for the next three to four weeks due to work at its main plant in Belgium.

Pfizer said the changes at the Puurs plant are necessary to increase production capacity of the vaccine developed with BioNTech in Germany from mid-February.

Deliveries will “increase significantly” at the end of February and March, the US group promised. The European Commission also confirmed that the promised doses for the first quarter will arrive within the timeframe.

European Union nations, desperate for more doses to immunize their populations against the virus that has claimed nearly two million lives around the world, expressed their frustration.

Germany, the EU’s largest economy, regretted the “last minute and unexpected” delay.

She urged the European Commission, which was responsible for joint procurement for the block, to seek “clarity and security” for upcoming deliveries.

Six northern EU countries also wrote to the Commission warning that the “unacceptable” situation “reduces the credibility of the vaccination process”.

The letter, signed by ministers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, also asked the Commission to “request a public statement of the situation” from pharmaceutical companies.

Across the Atlantic, Canada also said it was hit by the delays, calling it “unhappy”.

“Such delays and problems are to be expected, however, when the global supply chains go well beyond their borders,” said Canadian procurement minister Anita Anand.

Sluggish

Pfizer / BioNTech’s vaccine, which was being developed at record speed, was the first to be approved for general use by a western country on December 2nd when the UK gave it the go-ahead.

After Britain launched its vaccination campaign, the EU followed on December 27th.

The recent shipping delay is likely to fuel anger over the bloc’s vaccination campaign, which has already been criticized for being too slow compared to the US or former EU member UK.

The European Commission has also been accused of not consuming enough doses early enough.

Just last week the EU reached an agreement to double shipments of the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine to 600 million doses.

The urgency to immunize the population has increased as fears of virus variants first seen in South Africa and the UK are more contagious.

However, vaccine manufacturers had repeatedly warned that production capacity was limited.

While Pfizer is expanding capacity at Puurs, its partner BioNTech received approval on Friday to start production in Marburg, Germany.

The challenges of obtaining millions of vaccines around the world are also enormous, as the BioNTech / Pfizer batches have to be stored at extremely low temperatures of around minus 70 degrees Celsius before being delivered to distribution centers in specially designed cool boxes with dry ice filled.

After the end of ultra-cold storage, the vaccine must be kept at two to eight degrees Celsius in order for it to remain effective for up to five days.

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© 2021 AFP

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