Pfizer shrinks deliveries of Covid vaccine doses to Europe

Pfizer delays deliveries of Covid vaccine doses to UK and Europe while it expands Belgian factory as Professor Chris Whitty says ‘limited’ supply is holding back UK’s roll-out

  • European leaders called the unexpected delay from Pfizer ‘unacceptable’
  • The US company said supplies would be hit in late January and February
  • Professor Chris Whitty today said supplies are ‘limiting’ UK’s jab roll-out
  • But it is still the envy of Europe, with one in 20 citizens now immunised (3.3m)   

Covid vaccine manufacturer Pfizer is shrinking and delaying its deliveries to Europe while it expands its factory in Belgium.

The company makes one of just two vaccines that are being given to the public in the UK and confirmed that Britain would be affected in late January and February.

Concerns about vaccine deliveries in the UK swelled this week as the Government repeatedly refused to reveal how many are available and how many more are coming next week.

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, today said that the amount of vaccines available was the ‘limiting’ factor of how fast the country’s roll-out could go.

Britain is already leading the continent with 3.3million people vaccinated – one in 20 – and a million immunised in just five days, but officials insist the programme could go even faster if there were enough supplies to keep it running.

Countries in the EU have criticised Pfizer for shrinking its deliveries as it emerged Norway would get a batch 18 per cent smaller than expected next week.

The UK is already stretching Pfizer’s jabs – which have to be kept in specialist freezers at below 70°C – as far as they will go, stretching the gap between doses from three to 12 or more weeks and using thinner needles to reduce wastage and squeeze more doses out of the vials.

Pfizer and BioNTech make one of just two vaccines that are being given to the public in the UK and confirmed that Britain would be affected in late January and February.

Professor Chris Whitty today said supplies are ‘limiting’ UK’s jab roll-out

Pfizer is based in the US and developed the vaccine with German firm BioNTech. They manufacture Europe’s supplies at a facility in Belgium.

The German health ministry revealed today that its supplies were being delayed.

The ministry said: ‘At short notice, the EU Commission and, via it, the EU member states, were informed that Pfizer will not be able to fully meet the already promised delivery volume for the next three to four weeks due to modifications at the plant.’

Pfizer expects to have finished the work on its Belgian factory by mid-February, reported news website ENCA.

Germany, Norway, Spain, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were among the countries expecting deliveries.

In a letter to the European Commission, leaders from some of those countries described the delay as ‘unacceptable’, the Financial Times reported.

‘Not only does it impact the planned vaccination schedules,’ they wrote. ‘It also decreases the credibility of the vaccination process’. 

Britain has now officially left the EU so it is not involved in the European Commission complaint, but the company told the FT Britain’s supply would also be affected.

They said: ‘Although this will temporarily impact shipments in late January to early February, it will provide a significant increase in doses available for patients in late February and March.’ 

A Pfizer Denmark spokesperson told the Associated Press: ‘This temporary reduction will affect all European countries’. 

Boris Johnson and his vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi this week repeatedly refused to be drawn on putting numbers on Britain’s deliveries, claiming it was a matter of national security because ‘the whole world is looking to acquire vaccines at the moment’.

The UK has ordered 40million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, alongside 100million of one made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca – those are the only two approved.

Although Britain’s vaccination programme is hurtling forward and now immunising more than 250,000 people per day, pressure is growing on the Government to hurry it up even more.

The NHS looks on target to hit the 13.9million most vulnerable people by mid-February, but lockdown rules will likely have to remain until significantly more people – potentially everyone over the age of 50, around half the population – has been reached.

Officials say the ‘rate-limiting factor’ of the vaccine roll-out is not how quickly the NHS can use up the supplies but how quickly they’re coming in.

Professor Chris Whitty said in a Downing Street press conference today: ‘The thing which is limiting us at the moment is not the capacity of the NHS to deliver, it is the vaccines delivered.

‘That is true across Europe, that is true across the world, and it’s something which all of us need to do is to make sure we use the vaccines we’ve got as efficiently as possible.’


Medics giving out coronavirus vaccines are using smaller needles to squeeze more doses out of the vials, experts say.

Using needles that are narrower and have less space between the end of the syringe plunger and the start of the needle – known as dead space – can reduce wastage of the vaccine.

The needles contain up to a fifth less dead space and can save so much vaccine fluid over the course of a vial that an extra dose can be drawn out of it.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at Public Health England (PHE), revealed in a meeting of Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee that it was being done. 

She said an extra dose could be removed from both the Pfizer/BioNTech vials, which come in five doses, and the Oxford/AstraZeneca ones, which come in eights or 10s. 

It could give a significant boost to the UK’s supplies, meaning more Britons could be vaccinated with each delivery.

In a batch of five-dose vials intended for 1,000 people, for example, getting an extra dose out of each one could stretch to immunise 200 more people.

Bosses at AstraZeneca, appearing in the same committee, said they didn’t take issue with the practice but that vaccinators must always use a full dose and must never make one up using scraps from different vials. 

It is not clear how many centres are already using the narrower needles. Although Dr Ramsay said they have been used since the start of the roll out. 

It comes after it was revealed a sixth or seventh dose could be extracted from vials of the Pfizer vaccine, because of extra fluid put in by manufacturers.

They said this had been put in to protect against spillages and fluid getting stuck in the syringe, but if these are reduced more doses can be removed.

An extra dose of the coronavirus vaccine can be extracted when narrow needles are used, Dr Mary Ramsay said. Above is a low dead space needle (left) and a high dead space needle (right). It isn’t clear whether these are the needles being used by the NHS


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