EU pursues centralised purchase of monkeypox vaccine and antiviral drug

The European Commission is going ahead with the centralised purchase of an antiviral drug and a vaccine to be deployed against monkeypox, according to people familiar with the matter, as cases of the disease continue to climb and nations race to place orders.

The contracts, expected to be finalised as early as next week, would be for US drugmaker Siga Technologies’ antiviral tecovirimat, or Tpoxx, and for Danish group Bavarian Nordic’s smallpox vaccine Imvanex, the people said.

Monkeypox, which causes fever and skin lesions but usually clears up without treatment, has in recent weeks been detected outside west and central Africa, where it is endemic. The smallpox vaccine is up to 85 per cent effective in preventing a monkeypox infection, according to the World Health Organization, due to similarities in the pathogens.

The Financial Times on Tuesday reported that EU officials were exploring centralised procurement for the smallpox vaccine amid a flurry of orders and relatively limited supplies. Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter reported on Friday that the deal was going ahead and that it had grown to include an antiviral, according to Reuters.

On Friday, the commission confirmed its Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority was working with member states and drugmakers to counter monkeypox after “broad consensus” had been reached for the unit to “co-ordinate actions” and procure drugs on their behalf.

“It is important to bear in mind that monkeypox vaccination will be limited to very specific cases as the transmissibility of, and risk from, the virus is not comparable to Covid-19,” it said, without naming the companies involved.

“Thousands” of doses would probably be contracted initially, with the potential for more down the line, one of the people familiar with the matter said, adding that the contracts had not been finalised. Prices are unknown.

Research project Our World in Data said 329 confirmed cases of monkeypox had been reported worldwide, as of Thursday. And the UK Health Security Agency on Friday said 101 cases had been detected in England since May 7.

On Friday, the WHO’s head of infectious disease preparedness, Sylvie Briand, told delegates in Geneva the outbreak could be contained. “If we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily,” she said.

Siga had no immediate comment. Bavarian Nordic declined to comment.

Smallpox was eradicated more than four decades ago. However, vaccine stockpiles have been maintained to protect against a possible resurgence of the disease.

Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, in an interview this week said the quantity of smallpox vaccines available in Europe was unclear. A survey carried out in 2018 had yielded “qualitative answers not quantitative answers” and had never been published, she added.

A person with knowledge of the matter said EU officials were mapping the availability of Imvanex stocks.

Ammon stressed that a mass vaccination campaign similar to that against Covid was not planned. “What we’re thinking is that it’s certainly not at the population level as it was for Covid,” she said. The risk weighed against the benefit of a jab would be evaluated by the treating physician on an individual basis, she added.

Ammon made clear she expected the outbreak to expand. “I don’t know how far it will go, how big it will be,” she said, adding it was “very probable” it would spread to different parts of the world.

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