Finland is considering joining an alliance of four EU member states to acquire a vaccine to combat Covid-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus.
According to purchasing manager Päivi Sillanaukee of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the joint procurement project currently involves four EU countries: Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.
The ministry official said that it is essential that Finland acquires a vaccine at the same time as other countries. A declaration from the four-country alliance indicates that the vaccine would be distributed to participating states in proportion to their populations.
Sillanaukee said that the alliance is just one of several channels Finland is pursing for acquiring a possible vaccine. However she noted that purchases will be made directly on a bilateral basis.
Just weeks ago the EU Commission asked member states which of them would want the EU to negotiate advance purchase options for four to six promising vaccines on their behalf. The Commission already has the funding required as part of its emergency support instrument.
"We have responded in the affirmative to the Commission’s project negotiations," Sillanaukee said.
She speculated that the four-country alliance and the EU Commission projects could be combined, but said that it is still open how that would work and added that more detailed information would be required.
"We are ready to join whatever mechanisms are needed," she said.
Meanwhile, additional projects are being led by the World Health Organisation and other international organisations that could provide access to ready vaccines.
However it is still not known which segments of the population should be vaccinated. The answer depends on getting additional information about the immunological mechanism of the disease.
Who should get the shot first?
Head of infectious diseases for the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare Taneli Puumalainen said that research into a possible Covid-19 vaccine is still at an early stage.
He noted that there are currently about 150 advanced studies ongoing into possible promising vaccines and added that it is therefore premature to speculate on the likelihood of which of them will become a widely used vaccine.
"Since there aren’t any research results yet, it’s also not possible to evaluate their safety in any detail," Puumalainen said.
He pointed out that much more information is needed before anyone can say what kind of vaccine will be produced and whom it will protect. It is therefore not possible to say which groups should be immunised first.
If, for example, it turns out that a vaccine does not protect the elderly, then it would be wise to protect their family members and others around them, he said.
"If a vaccine protects older people and they are at greater risk of serious illness than young people then of course they should be vaccinated first. We need some kind of information about what kind of vaccine is likely to be produced before we can define the order in which people will be vaccinated."
Universal protection the goal
Vaccinating the entire population would also depend on what kind of shot is likely to be taken into use. For example, the presence of underlying illnesses could limit mass vaccinations, he noted.
"In principle we will likely aspire to ensure that everyone in Finland would receive protection from coronavirus. But we don’t even have initial information about what kind of vaccine might come," Puumalainen added.
The infectious diseases chief said that the international vaccination programme usually has a slow change cycle. He noted that it takes a few years for new vaccines to be assessed and added to the vaccine programme.
Puumalainen said that he assumes that a similar timetable will apply to a coronavirus vaccine. However he predicted that efforts will be made to speed up the evaluation period.
€100 million reserved
The health ministry’s Sillanaukee said that Finland has already initiated the procurement process for a vaccine and preliminary work is underway. She said that the ministry is closely following the development of vaccine trials.
She noted that opinions from the National Vaccine Expert Group and the Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases could be quickly obtained before a procurement decision.
"It’s difficult to say how many days that would take. We will try to get it done very fast," she said.
According to Sillanaukee, the government and the Parliament will also be able to speedily sign off on a vaccine purchase.
Government has already set aside 100 million euros for the vaccine project in its supplementary budget, so no separate budgeting process will be needed.