Italy has held talks with several manufacturers about starting production of mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines in the country, in the latest sign that European officials want to deepen those supplies over other types of shot.

Rome has discussed the domestic production of mRNA-based vaccines with US biotech Moderna, Switzerland’s Novartis and Italy’s ReiThera, people familiar with the matter said.

The recent talks with Novartis and ReiThera included the possibility of producing the mRNA vaccine developed by Germany’s CureVac in Italy, two of the people said.

Basel-based Novartis signed an initial agreement with CureVac in March to manufacture some of the company’s coronavirus vaccine. The shot is still in phase 3 trials, but the German biotech said this week it hoped the vaccine would be approved for use in the EU in May or June. ReiThera has its own adenovirus-based jab under development, but it is still in phase 2 trials. 

The talks between Novartis, ReiThera and the Italian government were at an early stage, the people said, and might not yield a final agreement. Novartis, ReiThera and CureVac all declined to comment.

In addition, Mario Draghi, Italian prime minister, has spoken directly to Moderna’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel, other people familiar with the matter said. The talks failed, the people said, as Moderna lacked the capacity to oversee the transfer of the necessary technology to Italian manufacturing sites or to staff those sites with the expertise needed to increase production.

Moderna declined to comment. It has previously pointed to a general lack of qualified vaccine staff as a constraint to the expansion of manufacturing.

The Italian effort to secure domestic production of mRNA-based Covid shots, which use new technology to deliver the vaccine into the body, comes as the EU appears to be moving away from the adenovirus-based vaccines produced by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Several European nations have either restricted or halted use of the AstraZeneca shot after the European Medicines Agency found a causal link with a very rare side effect involving blood clots. The rollout of J&J, a similar type of vaccine, has also been delayed while US and EU authorities probe a possible link.

EU member states feel they have been stung by their dealings with AstraZeneca, in particular, which has also failed to meet delivery targets, downgrading its supply projections to the bloc several times.

“We need to focus now on technologies that have proven their worth,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday. “MRNA vaccines are a clear case in point.” Brussels is now in talks with BioNTech/Pfizer, which produces one of the leading mRNA vaccines, for a deal for up to 1.8bn doses in 2022-23.

There is no suggestion that any Italian-made doses would be reserved for the country alone. Rather, they would boost European manufacturing capacity and be used to fulfil current and future vaccine procurement deals negotiated by Brussels on behalf of EU member states.

A commission official said Brussels welcomed Rome’s “engagement in vaccine production” and was aware of contacts between Italian authorities and companies. EU member state moves to boost vaccine production were “complementary” to the similarly targeted commission-led efforts and the two co-ordinated regularly, the official added. 

Fights over the export of vaccines and the growing acceptance that people could require annual booster shots have increased the incentives for politicians to increase domestic production. Last month, Draghi said the EU’s ability to produce its own vaccines was now as important as military spending.

“People speak a great deal about strategic autonomy, often in
reference to defence, security, the single market,” he said. “I
believe the first strategic autonomy today should be vaccines.”

Giancarlo Giorgetti, minister for economic development who would be in charge of any new manufacturing, has also said that both Italy and the EU needed to “guarantee ourselves self-sufficiency in terms of
vaccine production”.

One Italian official, however, said that Rome was focused on
vaccine supply for this year and hitting its daily vaccination targets
rather than longer-term plans. The Ministry of Economic Development declined to comment, as did the Ministry of Health.

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Berlin and Hannah Kuchler in London

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