By Francesco Guarascio and Andrius Sytas
BRUSSELS/VILNIUS (Reuters) - Some EU nations are receiving fewer than expected doses of coronavirus vaccines as U.S. pharmaceutical firm Pfizer slows shipments, while Turkey and China race ahead with inoculations amid surging infections worldwide.
Six EU countries described the delay as unacceptable and said it impacted the credibility of the whole vaccination process.
Spooked by a fast-spreading variant first detected in Britain, governments in Europe have imposed tighter and longer lockdowns and curbs. They are pinning hopes on vaccines being rolled out across the continent.
But even when inoculations start en masse, pressure on health systems is not expected to lift for months, or until most people within a population get the shot.
The vaccine developed by Pfizer with German partner BioNTech started being delivered in the EU at the end of December. U.S. biotech firm Moderna began delivering its shot this week.
Yet about one third of the 27 EU governments cited "insufficient" doses at a video conference of health ministers on Wednesday, a person who attended the virtual meeting told Reuters.
In a letter sent on Friday, six EU governments asked the European Commission to pressure Pfizer-BioNTech "to ensure stability and transparency of timely (vaccine) deliveries".
"This situation is unacceptable," said the letter, seen by Reuters, signed by the health ministers of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
"Not only does it impact the planned vaccination schedules, it also decreases the credibility of the vaccination process."
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she had spoken to Pfizer and been reassured that scheduled deliveries will be made in the first quarter of 2021.
Pfizer said there would be a temporary impact on shipments in late January to early February caused by changes to manufacturing processes to boost production.
"Although this will temporarily impact shipments in late January to early February, it will provide a significant increase in doses available for patients in late February and March," Pfizer said in a statement.
TURKEY PUSHES AHEAD
The German health ministry said Pfizer has informed the European Union that it would temporarily reduce deliveries due to construction work at its plant in the Belgian town of Puurs.
Belgium said it expected to receive only around half of the planned doses of the Pfizer vaccine in January. Lithuania said it was told this week its supplies would be halved until mid-February.
Pfizer and BioNTech have two contracts with the EU for the supply of up to 600 million doses this year. They have agreed to deliver 75 million doses in the second quarter and more later in the year.
Moderna has committed to delivering 10 million doses by the end of March and 35 million each in the second and third quarter. Another 80 million doses are also to be delivered this year but without a clear timetable yet.
Turkey, not an EU member, said it had vaccinated more than 600,000 people in the first two days of administering shots developed by China's Sinovac Biotech, among the fastest rollouts in the world.
"We are an experienced country in implementing nationwide inoculation programmes ... We will win the battle with the pandemic together," Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted.
Turkey vaccinated more people on the first day of its programme on Thursday than France had in nearly its first three weeks.
Rising infections are turning up the heat on China to strengthen its own pace of vaccination at home, even as it has been exporting millions of doses of vaccines to countries including Turkey, Indonesia and Brazil.
In the first nine days of January, about 4.5 million doses were given nationwide in China, triple the number given from July to November, Reuters calculations based on official data show. By Jan. 13, more than 10 million doses were given.
Two Chinese firms, Sinovac and Sinopharm, have developed vaccines. Sinopharm shipped more than 10 million doses domestically by Jan 4, while Sinovac delivered more than 7 million doses by Jan 10.
Scattered vaccine shortages cropped up on the front lines of the U.S. battle against the pandemic on Friday, prompting at least one large healthcare system to cancel appointments of people hoping to be inoculated.
President-elect Joe Biden will on Friday outline his plan to ramp up vaccinations after an early rollout by the Trump administration which he called "a dismal failure".
The United States leads the world with the highest number of infections and deaths. Biden has promised to get 100 million vaccine shots into the arms of Americans during his first 100 days in office.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux across the world; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Graff)