The European Union appears to have paid less than the United States for some of the coronavirus vaccines it secured, according to confidential pricing data that was released in a seeming blunder.
A Belgian government minister released, then quickly deleted, a Twitter post late Thursday containing prices that the European Union has negotiated to pay pharmaceutical companies for coronavirus vaccines.
The prices had been kept secret by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, which is negotiating on behalf of its 27 member states and ordering doses for the 410 million people living in the vast region, where cases have been surging.
European nations tend to pay substantially lower prices for most drugs than patients in the United States. But the coronavirus vaccines are unusual because the United States government negotiated prices and has arranged to buy doses for every American directly, unlike most medications, where the United States government has a limited role, and individual insurance companies bargain with drugmakers.
The higher U.S. price may reflect a less aggressive negotiating stance from American officials, who were eager to encourage several pharmaceutical companies to invest in vaccine development — and a desire to put the United States first in line for doses when they were available. Those financial incentives appear to have worked: No vaccine has ever before been developed so quickly.
The new information emerged days before the European Union is expected to approve its first vaccine for use across the region, which will set off an ambitious and logistically challenging inoculation campaign.
The price list, briefly released by Belgium’s budget state secretary, Eva De Bleeker, showed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is set for approval on Monday in the bloc and is being administered in the United States and Britain, will cost 12 euros, or $14.7, per dose, bringing the cost per person to €24, as each person is supposed to receive two doses.
That is markedly lower than the company’s official price, which has been announced at $19.5 per dose, which is also what the United States government paid. Rollout of the Pfizer vaccine began in the United States this week.
The Moderna vaccine, which is the next in line for E.U. approval, on Jan. 6, and is expected to receive authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use on Friday, is costing the E.U. $18 per dose, the table showed. The company had said it was looking to charge $25 to $37 per dose.
Eric Mamer, a European Commission spokesman, declined to comment on the price list, saying that the negotiated agreements were “covered by confidentiality,” but did not dispute the pricing.
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
A spokesman for Ms. De Bleeker said that she had tweeted the details to settle a political debate in Belgium, where opposition politicians are accusing the government of not setting aside enough money to buy the vaccines.
“We were trying to be transparent, but it seems we were a bit too transparent,” Bavo De Mol, the spokesman, said.
Several health economists have noted that the price of the vaccine itself — even if the United States is paying more than Europe — is trivial compared with the economic cost of a continuing pandemic. Just this week, Congress is preparing to authorize payments of $600 to every American adult to cushion the blow of the pandemic-driven recession, far more than the $39 per person it will take to vaccinate adults at the higher Pfizer price.
“The cost of overpaying is so small relative to the potential counterfactual,” said Benedic Ippolito, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who studies drug prices. “It’s like a shrug your shoulder situation where, OK, our price is a little higher. This is a one-time pandemic, and we’ll deal with the drug pricing situation later.”
But now that it is public, the price discrepancy may influence negotiations over future batches of vaccines.
The secrecy around the European prices was part of the negotiation, E.U. officials said, although they acknowledged that the demands for transparency around the vaccine deals were legitimate.
“We would not have had those contracts if we did not have the confidentiality clause inserted,” Mr. Mamer said. “It is a relevant debate, we are not questioning this. This was a part of the process to conclude those contracts, and we are not in a position to change it now,” he added.
The European Union ordered more vaccines from most providers than the U.S., partly because the bloc’s total population is bigger. In the case of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, for example, the E.U. secured 200 million vaccines with an option to tap the same deal for more down the line.
Other prices on the list released by the Belgian minister included 1.78 euro per dose for the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine; $8.50 per dose for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine; 7.56 euros for the Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline; and 10 euros for the Curevac. Some of these vaccines are far behind in development, and their advance purchasing agreements may never be activated or may take much longer; the contract the E.U. signed with them will become active only if their vaccines work.
In authorizing the E.U. to strike one comprehensive deal on behalf of its 27 member nations, the governments pooled negotiating capital and clout as a bloc, the bloc’s leadership says.
Provided the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved Monday, the E.U. plans to deliver the first batch of vaccines to each of its members’ capitals on Dec. 26, and to start rolling out inoculation across the bloc immediately after.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels; Margot Sanger-Katz reported from Washington.