The European Commission has received a mandate from EU governments to negotiate advance purchases of promising coronavirus vaccines, the EU's top health official said, but it is unclear whether there is enough money available.
The bloc is scrambling to sign advance deals with pharmaceutical companies to secure coronavirus vaccines under development, fearing a successful shot might not be available for Europeans soon enough.
EU health ministers gave "overwhelming" backing for a Commission plan to use an emergency fund of currently €2.4 billion to buy coronavirus vaccines upfront, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told journalists after a video conference with representatives of the 27 EU governments.
Under the plan, the EU would use most of the money available in that fund to buy in advance up to six vaccines for its 450 million people, EU officials said.
Such a multiple vaccine strategy could cost much more than the $1.2 billion deal signed by the United Stated in May to secure 300 million doses of a single coronavirus vaccine being developed by British drugmaker Astra Zeneca.
Asked whether EU states should provide extra funds, Ms Kyriakides said there was no need for further financial commitments at the moment. An EU official said member states' financial support was welcome.
The EU is planning a vaccination strategy that would target the most vulnerable, which would reduce the number of doses immediately needed, and the upfront payments. But it is unclear whether governments support the plan.
Under the advance purchasing plans, the EU would buy or commit to buying promising vaccines before they are ready, taking the risk of potential clinical failures. In exchange, it would get priority access to the shots.
The bloc has accepted extra risks so as not to lag behind China and the United States in the race to a vaccine, which currently does not exist.
The commissioner said the EU executive had already discussed its plans with pharmaceutical companies, but declined to name them. She also did not answer questions about the timing of the possible advance purchasing deals.
Astra Zeneca, France's Sanofi, and US players Pfizer, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna are among companies trialling vaccines.
EU officials said the bloc would not buy vaccines produced exclusively in the United States, fearing that would delay supplies to Europe.
With backing secured for the Commission, it remains unclear whether the wealthiest EU states will continue to pursue parallel talks with drugmakers.
Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands are already in talks with pharmaceutical companies to buy vaccines, a move that could weaken the EU's joint approach.
Ms Kyriakides said the two initiatives had the same goal. But she added: "Both tracks should converge for the benefits of all 27. This is about working together and not in competition."
In the initial months of the pandemic in Europe, EU states often competed against each other to secure face masks and drugs.