At this juncture, “Variants” and “vaccines” are the two key elements in the work of fighting the COVID-19 epidemic. The first is from the medical point of view, since the opinions regarding the mutations of the virus detected so far are conflicting and constantly evolving in the international scientific community. The second one is particularly from the point of view of organization and strategy for the vaccination campaign. Because, as pointed out by the president of the Superior Council of Health (CSS), Franco Locatelli, who on Sunday morning presented the analysis of data from the regional monitoring of the Control Center together with the Director General of Prevention of the Ministry of Health, Gianni Rezza, “it would be necessary to accelerate” the vaccinations, but a lot “depends on the supply.”
Just as Locatelli, speaking from the CSS headquarters at Lungotevere Ripa in Rome, was launching an appeal to artists, who made a living from live shows and are suffering so much in this period due to the lack of work, to take part in a major advertising plan for the vaccination campaign, the top management of AstraZeneca, convened urgently by Minister Speranza and Commissioner Arcuri, confirmed “the downsizing of the production capacity.”
“This is unacceptable,” protested Prime Minister Conte in the afternoon in a Facebook post. “Our vaccine plan, approved by the Italian Parliament and also ratified in the State-Regions Conference, was developed on the basis of contractual commitments freely taken up and signed by pharmaceutical companies with the European Commission. We will resort,” he promised, “to all legal instruments and all legal initiatives, as we are already doing with Pfizer-BioNTech, to demand compliance with the contractual commitments and to protect our national community in every form.”
The Prime Minister recalled that “first, it was Pfizer-BioNTech which communicated a slowdown in the distribution of the doses of vaccine already scheduled to European countries,” which “is punishing those countries that, like Italy, are running ahead of schedule,” with some regions that have had to slow down to avoid being left short of the second dose. And now, AstraZeneca as well, which is still waiting for the approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) scheduled for January 29, is planning a 60% reduction in the doses that will be distributed in the first quarter of the year. This, Conte explains, “would mean that 3.4 million doses would be delivered to Italy instead of 8 million.” It is inevitable, therefore, that legal action will be taken against the Swedish-British biopharmaceutical company.
Furthermore, there is alarm from the vaccination centers of some regions due to the lack of precision syringes that allow one to retrieve six doses of vaccine from each vial from Pfizer instead of five. “Many of the precision syringes that we use for vaccines we already have at our facility. As is happening for all regions, these don’t always arrive in adequate numbers and proper quality from the Commission structure set up for the emergency,” says the head of the regional pharmaceutical service of Campania, Ugo Trama. However, there are “no reports” of shortages From Emilia Romagna, at least according to the regional administration.
Commissioner Arcuri denies there is a problem: “This is false,” he says. “This week, we have gone on to distribute a lower number of syringes for the trivial reason that Pfizer has sent us a lower number of vials of vaccine.” And it will be the same next week, because “20% fewer vials than had been communicated” will be sent. In the evening, Minister Boccia convened a conference call with the presidents of the regions, together with the Minister Speranza and Commissioner Arcuri, to reshape the vaccination plan presented in Parliament on December 2, which assumed the arrival of 28,269,000 doses of vaccines in Italy in the first quarter. What is being proposed is permanent coordination between the State and the Regions until there is definitive certainty on the delivery of vaccines. According to leaks while the meeting was still in progress, there was a dispute between Arcuri and the President of Campania, De Luca, about the distribution of doses.
So far, according to Locatelli, 40,293 people have received the first and second vaccine dose in Italy, and 70% of the doses delivered have been administered. In any case, said the CSS president, “the phenomenon of the cut in production by Pfizer has not affected just Italy, but other countries have had even greater restrictions in supply: compared to our 29%, some have had a reduction of 40%.”
Then, to complicate the picture, there are the “variants” of the virus. In the “surge of cases in the United Kingdom, especially in the South-East, where London is located,” Locatelli pointed out, the UK variant rose to prominence, the most widespread in Europe among the known mutations. But regarding the increase in lethality announced by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “we must have further confirmation for a figure of +30%.” The Control Center is monitoring some outbreaks of the UK variant found in Italy. “Whether this could lead to an increase in the severity of measures is something we are considering,” Rezza added.
“As of today, however,” the CSS president clarified, “there is no evidence that the available vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, do not offer coverage against variants of the virus. So, the message at this time is absolutely reassuring.” Things are different regarding the South African variant, which has given rise to “disagreements among scientists” regarding morbidity and resistance to vaccines.
The only one that is “worrying,” because it seems to be resistant to the vaccines developed so far, is the Brazilian variant. But, thanks to the containment measures adopted, there are “only sporadic cases” of people infected with the Brazilian coronavirus in Europe. “We must be quick to identify the variants and keep our guard up,” Gianni Rezza recommended at the end of his speech. “Let’s not overload health facilities, because we are in the middle of the vaccination campaign. If necessary, there should also be travel restrictions.”