The high-stakes clash between the E.U. and vaccine maker AstraZeneca intensified Wednesday when E.U. officials accused the firm of withdrawing from a planned meeting to discuss cuts to its supply.
Dana Spinant, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, said that AstraZeneca had canceled the Wednesday meeting with the health steering group. A company spokesperson later denied that AstraZeneca pulled out of the talks.
“We can confirm we will be attending the E.U. talks,” spokesperson Jenny Hursit said in an email. It’s “not accurate to say we’ve pulled out,” she said.
AztraZeneca, a British-Swedish firm, said last week that production delays would limit the number of doses supplied to E.U. nations, prompting a backlash from European leaders who threatened the company with legal action. Officials this week stepped up pressure on pharmaceutical companies operating in the E.U. and said vaccine makers could suffer stricter export controls.
AstraZeneca and U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which developed a coronavirus vaccine with German biotech firm BioNTech, have said that reduced production capacity could lead to delivery disruptions.
On Wednesday, though, French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi announced it would produce Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine to make the 125 million vaccine doses allocated for the European Union.
The public spat came in stark contrast to Biden’s promise that an additional 200 million doses of the two vaccines approved for use in the United States — Pfizer-BioNTech’s and one made by U.S. firm Moderna — would be available by summer, bringing the total to 600 million doses — enough to vaccinate 300 million people.
With vaccines for now largely restricted to front-line health-care workers and high-risk groups, the hope is to give access to the general public by the spring.
Although the vaccine rollout began in late December, states have complained that the promised numbers of doses have not arrived. As manufacturing has ramped up, however, the federal allocations will increase by about 16 percent in the coming week.
Still, authorities face an uphill battle in combating misinformation surrounding the vaccine. In an internal document obtained by The Washington Post, Maryland health officials said that only about 58 percent of the doses allocated to nursing home staff and residents had been administered — even though vaccination clinics have been conducted at every facility.
Nursing home workers’ wariness, providers and union representatives say, is fueled by online misinformation about the vaccine and historical mistrust of the medical system of which they are a part.
It was also unclear if the boost in U.S. vaccine numbers will help with Biden’s other priority, returning schools to in-person learning. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, however, did give some optimism by concluding that schools have not been a major center of transmission.
Data from the United States and abroad reviewed by the CDC team found that schools had nowhere near the transmission rates of sites like nursing homes or high-density workplaces. Key to these efforts appeared to be prevention measures such mask-wearing.
“The conclusion here is with proper prevention efforts … we can keep transmission in schools and educational settings quite low,” said Margaret A. Honein, in a piece published in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the study.
Biden has said that his goal is to have a majority of the schools through eighth grade open within 100 days and has asked Congress for $130 billion to offset the costs of making educational institutions safer — as well as providing guidance on how.
In 22 states, as well as the District, teachers have been added to the priority lists for vaccines in an effort to speed up the reopening of schools. But the chaotic rollout of vaccination programs in most states and limited supplies have hampered these efforts.
While Biden stresses that reopening schools is a priority, Europe appears to be headed in the opposite direction and is increasingly shutting them down. Many European countries originally kept schools open much longer than in the United States, but they are now bowing under the pressure of a second wave.
Britain, Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands announced school closures over fears about new variants of the virus, which are believed to be more contagious.
On morning news shows this week, British ministers have been peppered with questions about when schools will reopen, with officials unable to provide a timeline, especially amid revelations that one of the new variants may spread more effectively in children.
With one of the most rapid vaccine rollouts in the West, Britain is hoping to blunt the latest wave of infections. Still, scientists say that hopes of ending the current lockdown by April are overly optimistic.
In Moscow, by contrast, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin abruptly lifted many of the city’s covid-related restrictions Wednesday, saying that the pandemic was “in decline” and that he had a “duty to create conditions” for a swift economic recovery.
Russia recorded more than 18,000 new cases on Tuesday, the lowest daily increase since late October. About 2,300 of those new infections were in Moscow. The measures included an 11 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants and an order that 30 percent of employees at local companies work from home. The city’s public mask mandate will remain in place.
But elsewhere, tightened restrictions have sparked unrest. In the Netherlands on Wednesday, calm returned to the streets after three days of widespread riots over a new nighttime curfew — the first in the country since World War II.
The unrest saw rioters clash with police in more than a dozen Dutch cities, where they torched vehicles, looted shops and launched rocks and fireworks at officers. Bars, restaurants and shops have been closed as part of a months-long lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.
While infections have fallen in recent weeks, authorities say they are worried about a rise in cases they attribute to new, more contagious variants that first emerged in Britain and South Africa.
Concerns over the vaccines’ effectiveness could complicate a wider battle over global vaccine supply, a struggle experts say will deepen the divide between poorer and wealthier nations.
In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Bill Gates said that poorer countries will face a lag of at least six to eight months behind richer nations in getting access to coronavirus vaccines. He said that the first vaccine rollout was a “super hard allocation problem” that has put pressure on global institutions.
“Every politician is under pressure to go bid for their country to get further up in line,” said Gates, whose foundation has pledged $1.75 billion to help fight the pandemic.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that its vaccine sharing initiative, Covax, expects to have 25 million vaccine doses by March for a broad region that includes the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Somalia and Djibouti. It was unclear which nations will receive the first deliveries.
The number of doses allocated for the region will reach 355 million by December, WHO official Yvan Hutin said.
Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow, Karla Adam in London and Quentin Aries in Brussels contributed to this report.