The European Commission has announced a series of measures to deal with new variants of Covid-19.

It includes a faster process for approving modifications to existing vaccines to combat emerging variants and more oversight of vaccine manufacturing capacity within the EU, including financial support to unblock bottlenecks to supply.

The moves are part of a process to set up a permanent 'Biodefence' agency in the EU, to look out for future threats from viruses and other biological hazards, and have the capacity to search for and scale up production of vaccines and therapies.

In the wake of the recent row with drugmaker AstraZeneca over its inability to supply vaccines the EU has contracted for, which spilled over into a dispute with the UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Commission says it is changing the way it makes contracts with vaccine suppliers, including changes to existing contracts to use updated vaccines to cope with new mutant variants.

The Commission said: "based on the lessons learned, a detailed and credible plan showing capability to produce vaccines in the EU on a reliable timescale will be a prerequisite to any new or updated agreement. 

"This should not prevent the EU from considering sources from outside the EU if needed, provided they meet the EU safety requirements."

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As well as changing the way it buys vaccines on behalf of its member states, the Commission said it will consider "capacity support", notably for smaller firms, to facilitate the production of vaccines and ensure the availability of intermediary inputs and infrastructures, such as laboratories.

Todays announcement  called "HERA Incubator" - a public-private cooperation to focus on detecting, analysing and adapting to virus variants, speeding up regulatory approval of vaccines, providing guidance on data requirements, facilitating the certification of new or repurposed manufacturing infrastructures and supporting the speedy mass production of adapted or novel Covid-19 vaccines.

The faster approval process for modified Covid vaccines is based on an existing fast approval process for the annual flu vaccines.

According to the Commission, private-public cooperation will be key to improving vaccine production capacity and overcoming bottlenecks in the supply chain.

It said: "The bio-defence preparedness plan 'HERA Incubator' will facilitate contacts and cooperation between regulators, other public authorities and industry and between industry players involved in the supply chain.

"The Task Force for Industrial Scale Up will act as a one-stop-shop helpdesk for any queries and operational support to address bottlenecks in production and supply of raw materials."

The commission will also try to coordinate work between private firms to bolster production capacity in Europe. It will set up a flexible manufacturing reserve known as "EU FAB" - an emergency response production capacity for vaccines and medicines in the EU.

The project is intended to be a "long term asset" for a planned European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA).

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she will bring the plan to EU leaders for approval at their summit on the Covid crisis next week.

She also announced a second contract with the US vaccine maker, Moderna, for an additional 300 million doses of its mRNA Covid vaccine.