If all goes well, the first people in the Netherlands will be vaccinated against the coronavirus at the beginning of January. Reacting to the schedule published today by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), health minister Hugo de Jonge said that the government is aiming to start vaccinations in the week of 4 January. The RIVM public health institute is working closely with regional health services (GGD), general practitioners, and doctors in nursing homes and other institutions, to achieve this goal.

“The vaccine is now within reach, and we’re on the eve of a new phase in this crisis,” De Jonge said. ‘It’s a phase of hope and a new perspective. It’s now up to the EMA to do its work carefully, and we’ll make sure we’re ready as soon as we get the green light. So it may be as early as the beginning of January, though that’s the most favourable scenario. The ball is in the EMA’s and European Commission’s court, and safety takes precedence over speed.”

The EMA announced earlier today that vaccine developers BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna have officially applied for market authorisation in the European Union. This means that testing has been completed. The EMA will now assess their safety, quality and efficacy in close coordination with the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board (MEB). If this process is successful, the EMA expects to give its opinion on the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine by 29 December. If this is positive, the European Commission could decide shortly afterwards, possibly before the turn of the year, to allow it to be used in the European market. Discussions will take place with the parties involved on how to begin administering it in the following week, beginning on 4 January.

The Dutch government has already indicated in its vaccination strategy that it will adopt the Health Council of the Netherlands’ advisory report. This means that the elderly, vulnerable people, and care workers will be vaccinated first. Whether the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine is suitable for this target group must be evident from the EMA assessment, and if it is not, other groups will be considered. The vaccination strategy is therefore flexible, with several scenarios being developed with the RIVM and other parties. One of the key priorities is to minimise wastage of the scarce vaccines.

BioNTech/Pfizer expects to deliver about one million doses of its vaccine to the Netherlands in the course of December, in anticipation of market approval. These could protect around 450,000 people. This early delivery also means that in the event of a positive opinion from the EMA, vaccination can start shortly after the European Commission’s official decision. BioNTech/Pfizer will then be able to deliver a further 1.6 million doses in the first quarter of 2021.

The EMA says a decision on the Moderna vaccine is expected in mid-January. The company is planning to deliver about 400,000 doses to the Netherlands in the first quarter of 2021. Depending on EMA approval, larger quantities from several manufacturers will arrive in the country in the second and third quarters, though the exact numbers are not yet known.

The Netherlands and the EU have deliberately bought a wide range of vaccines, and have contracts with six developers: BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen, AstraZeneca, Curevac, and Sanofi. If all are approved for the European market, the Netherlands will have more than 50 million doses at its disposal. Since most vaccines require two doses per person, this is enough for at least 29 million people. In addition, most contracts include scope for additional supplies, and discussions are ongoing with other manufacturers. The country has earmarked EUR 700 million for the purchase of the vaccines.