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Verdict on Pfizer’s communication strategy: “Could do better”

In VRT News’ Sunday morning televised topical discussion programme ‘De zevende dag’ there was general agreement that the there was room for improvement in the way in which the pharmaceuticals company Pfizer communicated on the quantity of its coronavirus vaccine that it plans to deliver to Belgium during the coming week. However, the vaccines expert Professor Pierre Van Damme told the programme that we should always bear in mind that they might be setbacks with vaccine supplies. Professor Van Damme added that the stock of 127,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that is currently being stored at vaccination hubs across Belgium will be all but exhausted by the end of the coming week. Meanwhile, the infectious diseases expert Professor Erika Vlieghe says that it is still too early to discuss a relaxation of the coronavirus measures in the medium term. 

During the past few days there has been much discussion about the supply of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Pfizer announced that it was temporarily cutting back production of the vaccine in order to carry out work at its production facility that will once completed allow it to scale up production. 

Initial figures suggested that Belgium would receive 40,000 fewer doses of the vaccine next week than had been originally planned. However, on Saturday evening it emerged that only 7,000 fewer doses of the vaccine than planned will be delivered to Belgium during next week. Pfizer was slammed for its lack of clarity. 

However, Professor Van Damme stresses that “We should focus on the good news”. Pierre Van Damme is a vaccines expert and a member of the Vaccination Task Force. On Saturday evening the Task Force met to discuss eventual modifications to the vaccination plans in the light of Pfizer’s announcement.

"It is only 7,000 less rather than 40,000 and it is the intention to scale up production so that in time more vaccines can be supplied”, Professor Van Damme told De zevende dag.

He added that there is something to be learned from the events of the past few days.  "The communication was unfortunate, and it could have been more prompt and clearer. In 24 hours, a lot of people have got together and met to for example draw up a new timetable. This is asking a lot”.

By the same token Professor Van Damme believes that we should always remain flexible during the vaccination campaign.

"It is not easy because you always have to set a whole mechanism in motion, but it will happen again. If a batch is rejected or if you find that you can get six doses out of a bottle rather than five. This won’t be the last time that we have to step up”.  

There are currently 127,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine stored in special ultra-low temperature freezers at vaccination hubs across Belgium. Why can’t they be used to speed up the vaccination programme?

"The stock will be as good as exhausted by the end of next week”, Professor Van Damme explained. 

He went on to say that the vaccination process started slowly but is now speeding up. Furthermore, in Belgium were indeed to have received 40,000 fewer doses of the vaccine next week we would have been glad that were still had stocks from previous deliveries in storage at the vaccine hubs. 

Figures under control, but no cause for jubilation

Over the past few days there has been much concern about new more infectious variants of coronavirus. Both the South African and the British variants of the virus have been detected here in Belgium. "There are indeed several variants, but at the same time we also still see the strain of the virus that has been present here now for months. And it is also perfectly possible that new variants can arise”, Professor Van Damme said.  

“It is not always easy to understand what is happening in practice. We need to invest, and we have invested in decent surveillance system to keep tabs on variants. Are the new variants more contagious, just as contagious or less contagious that the original virus stain that was present here?”

Also taking part in the programme was the infectious diseases expert Professor Erika Vlieghe. Professor Vlieghe is the Chair of GEMS, the group of experts that advises the government on how to address the coronavirus crisis. With regard to the figures relating to the coronavirus crisis in Belgium Professor Vlieghe said

"We are pleased that the figures remain under control and are low compared with neighbouring countries. But we need to stay awake and not become over-confident. We should not close our eyes”.

Professor Vlieghe added that it is still too early to consider a relaxation of the coronavirus measures in the medium term.

"We at GEMS are thinking about it, but now it is too early. The figures aren’t good enough and the situation is still too uncertain. An exit plan is part of our homework and is something we have been working on for weeks. Also, because it is important for the sectors that are currently inactive that there is a plan. However, we are currently in a situation of applying the accelerator and the brake simultaneously”, Professor Vlieghe said.  


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