In Short Supply

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-02-02-2021, Volume 45, Issue 2

COVID-19 vaccine supplies are breaking news headlines, in both ‘good’ and ‘not so good’ ways.

Pharma supply chains have been in the limelight lately, as the whole world waits with anticipation for vaccine doses to be delivered and for a resultant light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. News on the supply of vaccines has been varied, with some ‘good’, some ‘bad’, and some ‘ugly’ stories hitting headlines.

The ‘good’

Throughout the pandemic, the bio/pharma industry has proven itself to be adaptable—rapidly progressing vaccines and other therapeutics to help combat and treat COVID-19 and forming partnerships with ‘competitors’ to ensure supply could be maximized. Most recently, three new partnerships have formed: those of Sanofi and Novartis with BioNTech and Pfizer, and Bayer with CureVac (1–3).

In January 2021, Sanofi stated it will perform late-stage manufacturing of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to supply more than 125 million doses for the European Union (1), and Novartis signed an initial agreement to use its aseptic manufacturing facilities in Stein (Switzerland) to produce vaccine doses that will be shipped back to BioNTech for global distribution (2). Bayer revealed its plans to support CureVac with an anticipated additional 160 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine in 2022, manufactured through Bayer’s network, which includes the company’s site in Wuppertal (Germany) early in February (3).

The ‘bad’

Towards the end of 2020, Pfizer announced a reduction in the expected number of vaccine doses it could deliver due to supply chain issues (4). Then, in mid-January 2021, Pfizer and BioNTech released a statement concerning the upscaling of manufacturing at the Puurs site in Belgium, which would mean modifications of certain production process and a resultant, temporary reduction in the number of doses delivered (5). This news was met with anger by several frustrated European Union member states who urged for pressure to be applied to the companies to deliver the agreed upon number of doses (6).


Further adding to European anxieties that vaccination programmes would be hindered was the fact that AstraZeneca would also not be able to meet the previously agreed upon number of vaccine doses due to production issues in European manufacturing sites, which the company divulged to the EU’s Steering Committee on 22 Jan. 2021 (7).

The ‘ugly’

AstraZeneca’s supply announcement resulted in a public dispute between the pharmaceutical company and the European Commission (EC). While the EC asserted its ‘deep dissatisfaction’ at the revelation from AstraZeneca (8), the company’s CEO, Pascal Soriot, pointed to the contract, which he specified only required the company make ‘best efforts’ to deliver the previously agreed upon number of vaccine doses (9). The confidential contract was published on 29 Jan. 2021 with some information redacted (10).

As the dispute continued, the EU announced that export controls would be placed on vaccines produced in the bloc, including Northern Ireland (NI), heightening tensions between the EU and the United Kingdom and garnering criticism from the World Health Organization (11). Hours after the EU announced these export controls, there was a U-turn on the decision to trigger the safeguard clause, meaning that the Ireland/NI protocol would be unaffected (12). The relationship has somewhat improved between AstraZeneca and the EU, with the company agreeing to supply an additional nine million doses by March (13).

Further industry collaboration, such as the support being offered by Sanofi, Novartis, and Bayer to produce vaccine doses, will be imperative over the coming months to help with supply issues and bolster efforts to tackle the pandemic.


1. Sanofi, “Sanofi to Provide Support to BioNTech in Manufacturing Their COVID-19 Vaccine to Help Address Public Health Needs,” Press Release, 27 Jan. 2021.
2. Novartis, “Novartis Signs Initial Agreement to Provide Manufacturing Capacity for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine,” Press Release, 29 Jan. 2021.
3. Bayer, “Bayer to Manufacture mRNA Vaccine in Germany,” Press Release, 1 Feb. 2021.
4. C. O’Donnell, “Pfizer Says Supply Chain Challenges Contributed to Sashed Target for COVID-19 Vaccine Doses in 2020,” Reuters, 3 Dec. 2020.
5. BioNTech, “Statement on European Upscaling as well as Impact on Deliveries,” Press Release, 15 Jan. 2021.
6. BBC, “Coronavirus: EU Anger Over Delayed Pfizer Vaccine Deliveries,” News Release, 16 Jan. 2021.
7. BBC, “Coronavirus: EU Vaccine Woes Mount as New Delays Emerge,” News Release, 23 Jan. 2021.
8. EC, “Remarks by Commissioner Stella Kyriakides on Vaccines,”, 27 Jan. 2021.
9. A. Guerrera, S. Bolzen, and R. de Miguel, “Pascal Soriot: ‘There are a Lot of Emotions on Vaccines in EU. But it’s Complicated’,” La Repubblica, 26 Jan. 2021.
10. EC, “Vaccines: Contract Between European Commission and AstraZeneca Now Published,”, 29 Jan. 2021.
11. BBC, “Coronavirus: WHO Criticises EU Over Vaccine Export Controls,” News Release, 31 Jan. 2021.
12. EC, “Commission Statement on the Vaccine Export Authorization Scheme,”, 29 Jan. 2021.
13. BBC, “COVID: EU and AstraZeneca in ‘Step Forward’ on Vaccines,” News Release, 1 Feb. 2021.

About the Author

Felicity Thomas is the European editor for Pharmaceutical Technology Group.

Article Details

Pharmaceutical Technology Europe
Vol. 33, No. 2
February 2021
Page: 6


When referring to this article, please cite it as F. Thomas, “In Short Supply,” Pharmaceutical Technology Europe 33 (2) 2020.