Exclusive: EU in advanced talks with Johnson & Johnson on COVID-19 vaccine deal - sources

By Elvira Pollina and Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission is in advanced talks with pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to reserve or pre-purchase the COVID-19 vaccine under development, two officials familiar with the talks told Reuters.
The move would be the first to be arranged by the European Union executive, as it was mandated by the 27 national EU governments to use an emergency fund of over € 2 billion ($ 2.3 billion) to do business with up to six vaccine manufacturers.
The Commission’s contract with Johnson & Johnson is "in preparation," said a leading health official from an EU member state, and asked to remain anonymous as the talks were confidential discussions about vaccines between the EU -Executive and the EU government acted.
A second EU source said the Commission received a call to Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday about a possible settlement.
A spokesman for the commission had no comment.
When asked by Reuters, Johnson & Johnson replied that it was in talks with several governments and global organizations to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but declined to comment.
It was unclear whether a store would involve pre-buying the vaccine for testing or a purchase option.
Johnson & Johnson plans to start human clinical trials next month for its experimental vaccine against the highly contagious coronavirus, which has infected more than 8.36 million people worldwide and has resulted in 447,985 deaths.
Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands announced last week that they had purchased 400 million potential vaccine doses - which are in principle available to all Member States - from the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which is developing a COVID-19 shot in collaboration with Oxford University .
AstraZeneca signed a similar contract with the United States in May.
The health agency source said the EU deal with Johnson & Johnson could be announced next week, but warned that the deal could take a little longer and there is a possibility that it will not materialize.
He said the EU is also seeking an agreement with the French vaccine maker Sanofi. A Sanofi spokesman had no immediate comment.
EU decision-making is a potential sticking point as member states are still in talks about establishing a steering committee for vaccine negotiations with drug manufacturers, officials told Reuters.
However, the Commission underlined the urgency of securing a vaccine for the 450 million inhabitants of the EU and had already started discussions with Johnson & Johnson before the steering committee was agreed.
The Netherlands also participated in these first talks with Johnson & Johnson, representing the alliance of the four EU countries that closed the AstraZeneca deal, officials told Reuters.
This alliance is expected to end negotiations with pharmaceutical manufacturers as soon as the EU has appointed its negotiating team to avoid competition between EU countries.
"Johnson and Johnson's vaccine is one of the most promising initiatives," said a spokesman for the Dutch Department of Health and declined to comment on the ongoing talks.
By buying vaccines in development, the EU risks getting shots that may prove unsuccessful against COVID-19.
However, the risk is justified by the need to secure enough doses for the EU population in the global race for an effective vaccine, EU officials say.
($ 1 = 0.8890 euros)
(Reporting by Elvira Pollina in Milan and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont in Paris and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Letter from Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Elaine Hardcastle and David Goodman)

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