By Daniel Michaels and Bojan Pancevski 

The European Union, grappling with the potential loss of Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines, will buy an additional 50 million doses from BioNTech and Pfizer Inc. for the quarter, and is in talks to purchase up to 1.8 billion more doses over the next two years.

The plan marks a vote of confidence in the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, amid rising issues around the AstraZeneca PLC and J&J alternatives. In shaping the requirements for its new contract, the EU focused only on vaccines using new messenger-RNA technology, like those from BioNTech and Pfizer and Moderna Inc. The AstraZeneca and J&J vaccines use a different technology, known as viral vector. Production of these shots has proven difficult to scale up, and there are concerns about possible links to rare blood clots.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the new order would bring total deliveries of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine for the quarter to 250 million doses. The EU also expects 35 million doses from Moderna and 70 million doses from AstraZeneca during that period.

J&J had been expected to deliver 55 million doses during the quarter, but that is in question after the company said this week it would delay the rollout of its vaccine in Europe due to potential safety concerns.

Similar worries about AstraZeneca's vaccine have prompted countries in Europe and elsewhere to restrict its use to older people, and Denmark on Wednesday said it was suspending indefinitely use of the vaccine. Clotting concerns linked to Moderna's vaccine have also arisen, but no country has limited its use.

The EU's new BioNTech-Pfizer order comes as vaccinations in the bloc are accelerating. J&J's vaccine requires only one shot, compared with two shots for all the others, so its deliveries had represented an even larger proportion of total effective vaccinations. Before Wednesday's announcement, the J&J shots had accounted for between 15% and 25% of current-quarter vaccinations.

BioNTech and Pfizer have said that they have capacity to make 2.5 billion doses this year, of which 1.4 billion have already been ordered. The companies and the EU are in talks for further deliveries this year, in addition to those announced Wednesday. This comes after the EU announced in January plans to double its BioNTech-Pfizer order for this year to 600 million doses.

The EU's 27 member countries, with a combined population of roughly 450 million people, have administered 100 million vaccine doses so far, according to Ms. von der Leyen. Of these, more than one-quarter are second doses, meaning over 25 million Europeans are fully vaccinated.

The European Commission -- the EU's executive arm that is handling its coronavirus vaccine purchases -- is trying to prepare for future waves and mutations in the virus and the need for likely booster shots. It wants to order 900 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses, plus options on another 900 million doses, for delivery in 2022 and 2023, an EU official said.

BioNTech confirmed it was in talks with the commission regarding the order. Additional contracts with other vaccine producers may follow, Ms. von der Leyen said.

The negotiations represent an effort by the commission to better prepare and organize vaccine purchases than it did at the height of the pandemic. The commission and EU countries have faced criticism for moving too slowly to order vaccines, not investing enough to develop them and to secure orders, not writing sufficiently binding contracts and favoring older vaccine technologies over new ones.

"To prepare for the future, we are drawing lessons from the first phase of our answer to the pandemic," Ms. von der Leyen said.

The commission is also insisting that its follow-on contract be produced at plants in the EU, according to specified monthly targets. BioNTech has opened a new factory in Germany with capacity to produce 1 billion doses annually. The company is working to increase that capacity in the coming months.

Under the contracts that are being negotiated, BioNTech and Pfizer will be obliged to upgrade their vaccine free of charge to cover any potential mutations that could render their shots less effective, according to a person familiar with the talks.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov recently said the future doses would cost the EU 19.50 euros each, equivalent to around $23.30, significantly more than what it is paying for current doses. A person familiar with the talks confirmed the new price.

BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin said earlier this year that his company could create a new vaccine to tackle any new variant of the coronavirus within six weeks.

BioNTech and Pfizer are currently running a study of an upgraded version of their vaccine design to tackle the South African virus mutation. This study is coordinated with the European Medicines Agency, and if it is deemed successful, the regulator is expected to accept every new upgrade without demanding renewed large-scale trials, much like it does with anti-flu shots that are upgraded every season.

Write to Daniel Michaels at daniel.michaels@wsj.com and Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 14, 2021 11:57 ET (15:57 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.