BRUSSELS — In vaccine-hungry, cash-rich Europe, the hunt for more doses has nations trading with each other, weighing purchases from Russia and China, and fielding offers from middlemen ranging from real to outright frauds.
Amid building anger over a sluggish European Union coronavirus vaccine rollout that has left them far behind several other wealthy countries, many E.U. states are looking beyond the bloc’s joint purchasing strategy, which now seems woefully underwhelming.
An immense black — or at least gray — market has arisen, with pitches from around the world at often exorbitant prices. Sellers have approached E.U. governments claiming to offer 460 million doses of vaccines, according to the early results of an investigation by the bloc’s anti-fraud agency that were shared with The New York Times.
While they still plan to get vaccines from the bloc, some nations are also trying to negotiate directly with drug makers and eyeing the murky open market where they are still unsure of the sellers and the products. Some have also agreed to swap vaccines with each other, deals some of them now have reason to regret.
The European Union last year was slow to make massive advance purchases from drug companies, acting weeks after the United States, Britain and a handful of other countries. This year, the bloc was blindsided by slower-than-expected vaccine production, and individual countries have fumbled the rollout.
About 5 percent of the E.U.’s nearly 450 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, versus almost 14 percent in the United States, 27 percent in Britain and 53 percent in Israel, as of earlier this week, according to Our World in Data database and governments.
The stumbles by the world’s richest bloc of nations have turned vaccine politics toxic. Particularly galling to many Europeans is the sight of a former E.U. member, Britain, forging ahead with its vaccination and reopening plans, while E.U. societies remain under lockdown amid a new surge of dangerous variants, their economies sinking deeper into recession.
In the final months of 2020, several countries opted to forgo parts of their population-based shares of E.U.-purchased vaccines. Much of that trade involved less affluent countries, with less infrastructure and hard-to-reach populations, selling their shares of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna that require ultracold storage, and instead making the cheaper AstraZeneca vaccine, which is easier to handle, the centerpiece of their vaccination campaigns.
But then AstraZeneca, whose vaccine was developed with the University of Oxford, slashed its expected E.U. deliveries because of production problems. And despite experts’ assurances, many Europeans expressed doubts about it after some leaders questioned its efficacy in older age groups, which were not well represented in clinical trials. (Pfizer also suffered a supply slowdown.)
A decision by any country to let go of doses is potential political dynamite, and the recriminations have begun. Poland gave up a chunk of its expensive Moderna quota expected late this year, reasoning that it would not come soon enough to make much difference, considering they were anticipating ample deliveries of AstraZeneca and potentially the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by that point.
“I would never give up on buying what is safe and efficient,” said Andrzej Halicki, a Polish member of the European Parliament. “As a former minister I can tell you that in my view this is criminal action, this is a breach of obligations.”
A German official said the country had secured 50 million Moderna vaccine doses, a significantly larger number than it would get under its population-based allocation of the E.U. supply. E.U. officials confirmed that Germany had obtained at least some of their extra doses from other member states.
Germany also secured a controversial side-deal with Pfizer-BioNTech, for an extra 30 million doses to be delivered later in 2021, sparking anger in parts of the E.U. as the move was seen as the richest E.U. nation leading the bloc to a collective strategy and then hedging by also going at it alone.
The bloc’s fear is that such side-deals could undermine its collective purchasing power and override delivery schedules to all 27 countries.
The European Commission has made it clear that E.U. countries should not be cutting separate deals with the same pharmaceutical companies that it has negotiated contracts with for the whole bloc.
The Netherlands has secured, from one or more other E.U. countries, 600,000 doses of the shot that Pfizer developed with the German company BioNTech, according to a government official who would not say which nation or nations had given them up.
France has not made public any deals it has made, but Prime Minister Jean Castex said, “If vaccine doses happen to be available, the instruction is clear: France will buy immediately.”
Hungary has unilaterally approved and bought Russian and Chinese vaccines, and others, such as Croatia and the Czech Republic, are weighing similar moves. E.U. officials say they are getting calls from several other member states eager to see the bloc approve the Russian shot, Sputnik V.
In a troubling turn, senior government officials and even heads of government have received dozens of unsolicited offers for vaccines. Few of the sellers appear to be legitimate operators, said Ville Itala, director-general of the European Anti-Fraud office, known as OLAF.
“They are offering vaccines, quite huge amounts, so far it’s 460 million doses, which is around 3 billion euros,” he said in an interview this week. “So it’s not a small business, it’s a huge business, and this is growing all the time.”
Mr. Itala said he was taking the unusual step of going public with the information, little over a week into his agency’s investigation, because the potential risks to Europeans are huge.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said last week, “I think in a crisis like this you’ll always have people who seek to benefit or profit from the problems of others and we see a growing number of frauds and fraud attempts.”
But with offers piling in, officials say they are prepared to examine each one carefully before rejecting it.
“Wherever a few thousand, or a few hundred thousand, vaccines seem to be ready to fall off a truck, a Hungarian scout must be standing by to catch them,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary said earlier this month.
In neighboring Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he had gotten offers from brokers in Dubai and elsewhere, while such pitches also reached the inboxes of top government officials in Germany, Greece and Finland, to name just a few.
Most of the middlemen claim to be selling the AstraZeneca shot, Mr. Itala said. The company said it only does deals with governments or multilateral organizations, such as through the Covax vaccine-sharing initiative. But that does not rule out the possibility of countries quietly reselling them to third parties.
“AstraZeneca has not authorized any shipments of the vaccine outside of the existing contract with the European Union,” a company spokesman said. “There should be no private sector supply for sale or distribution of the vaccine in Europe.”
While many of the offers are clearly fraudulent, others may be legitimate, officials say, even if the prices quoted are astronomical.
In Italy, many of the pitches have gone to regional officials who have extensive power over health care systems. The Italian police and other authorities are actively vetting the pitches.
“If these doses are legally purchased and there was a fully regular process, we could also consider purchasing it,” said Cesare Buquicchio, a spokesman for the country’s health minister. “Because of the delays in the deliveries we could rethink this, nothing is unchangeable, we could rediscuss this at a European level.”
In the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, Raffaele Donini, the top health official, said he had received several emails offering millions of vaccines, including one from J&G General Service D.O.O., a company based in Croatia that offered AstraZeneca doses at a price not much higher than the E.U. negotiated.
The company’s director, Juri Gasparotti, said a “major pharmaceutical company” outside the E.U., which he declined to name, was directly in contact with AstraZeneca and would provide the batch.
Mr. Gasparotti said that vaccine producers were “hypocrites” to claim they only sell to state entities.
Other vaccines offered to Emilia-Romagna by Mondial Pharma, a company based in the Swiss town, Lugano, cost more than those offered by Mr. Gasparotti.
Pierfrancesco Lucignano, a marketing official for Mondial Pharma, said the company had offered the region three million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine he said was produced by the Serum Institute of India, the official Indian manufacturing partner for AstraZeneca, for about 26 euros per dose, almost $32.
“There are other countries outside Europe that are buying them,” he said, adding that he is negotiating with South American and African countries.
The northern Italian region of Veneto has also gotten offers of millions of doses, from intermediaries it has done business with in the past. “We are not talking about tricksters that come here and pretend they have a garage full of vaccines,” the region’s president, Luca Zaia, said during a news conference earlier this month.
Mr. Donini, the official in Emilia-Romagna, said his region put the negotiations on hold and suggested the Italian state take full advantage of the region’s connection with brokers.
“We activated a setup that would allow us to go 100 kilometers per hour,” he said, “and we are forced to go 20 kilometers per hour because we don’t have gas, while we know there are people who could fill us up.”
Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome, Constant Méheut from Paris, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, Thomas Erdbrink from Amsterdam, and Melissa Eddy from Berlin.