The European Commission granted a second Covid-19 vaccine - developed by US firm Moderna - conditional market authorization on Wednesday, as frustration grows over the slow pace of vaccination campaigns in EU countries, including Finland.
The final decision was issued within hours of a positive recommendation from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), and allows the vaccine to join Pfizer-BioNTech's equivalent in the European Union's arsenal against the respiratory disease.
"We are providing more COVID-19 vaccines for Europeans," Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a written statement hailing the move.
The first deliveries are due to begin next week, according to a statement by Moderna.
The decision could help take the heat off some EU leaders, whose citizens are looking enviously to the United States, Britain and Israel, where millions of jabs have already been administered.
This is the case of Finland, where the government led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin has been criticized by the opposition and private citizens on social media, with harsh accusations of lack of planning and slowness in the vaccination campaign.
According to Mia Kontio, from the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), the first batches of the Moderna vaccine will arrive in Finland in the coming weeks, although they will be small and will not have a significant impact on the vaccination campaign.
"We are talking about thousands of doses a week rather than tens of thousands," she said.
160 million doses to the EU
The US, Israel and Canada had already authorized the Moderna shot - as well as Pfizer-BioNTech's.
"We'll have more than enough safe and effective vaccines for protecting all Europeans,” von der Leyen stressed.
The EU's executive branch has ordered 160 million doses from Moderna on behalf of the bloc's 27 member states, and 300 million from Pfizer-BioNTech. Two shots are needed for each vaccination in a population of 450 million.
The EU started its inoculation drive on 27 December with the Pfizer-BioNTech jab - a few weeks behind the front-runners - and production and delivery bottlenecks have contributed to a sluggish first week.
Germany has mustered 367,000 so far, while France has managed 5,000. The Netherlands only started inoculating its citizens on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Mark Rutte getting lampooned in parliament for the delay.
In Finland, 5,445 doses of the vaccine had been administered last Friday, according to figures published by the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).
"More than enough"
German Health Minister Jens Spahn fended off accusations that too few doses had been ordered: "We have enough, more than enough vaccine for everyone."
"The truth is that the vaccine is a scarce good worldwide," Spahn told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday.
The Commission has so far signed contracts with six producers, providing some 2 billion potential doses, though most of these have yet to be approved by regulators.
Moderna's trial was carried out on 28,000 people from 18 to 94 years of age with no sign of previous infection, and showed the drug to be 94.1% effective in preventing Covid-19, according to a press release from the EMA.
“This vaccine provides us with another tool to overcome the current emergency,” said Emer Cooke, the director of the Amsterdam-based agency, said in the statement.
Conditional market authorization means the drug can be rolled out to EU citizens, but obliges the companies to keep sharing information on long-term effects, for example.
Advantage over Pfizer
While both EU-approved vaccines offer strong protection - Pfizer-BioNTech's demonstrated 95% protection efficacy - Moderna has an advantage over Pfizer-BioNTech in terms of storage.
Pfizer-BioNTech's jab requires an elaborate cold-chain supply system as it must be stored at minus 70 Celsius, whereas Moderna's can survive at normal fridge temperature.
Moderna's drug needs two vaccine doses four weeks apart to be effective; Pfizer-BioNTech's jab needs a second dose after three weeks.
Moderna, based in Cambridge in the US state of Massachusetts, said a few weeks ago that 100 to 125 million doses of the vaccine with the name "mRNA-1273" would be produced in the first three months of 2021.
Of these, 15 to 25 million are to be available outside the US. The first deliveries to EU countries could begin as early as January.
The Commission expects its order to be filled by the third quarter of the year.