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UPDATE 2-BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine heads to EU as effectiveness against new strain tested

(Adding details)

FRANKFURT/ZURICH, Dec 22 (Reuters) - BioNTech is testing the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine it developed with Pfizer against a highly infectious new strain of the coronavirus as it prepares to send 12.5 mln doses to EU countries by the end of year.

The European Union is gearing up for a vaccination campaign of unprecedented scale following regulatory approval for the shot on Monday.

The EU deliveries amount to more than half the 20 million doses expected to be available in the United States before the end of the year, BioNTech’s chief business officer, Sean Marett, told a briefing.

With two shots administered three weeks apart, the supplies are enough to vaccinate 6.25 million people in the bloc.

Preparations for the roll-out come as the identification of a highly infectious new strain of the coronavirus in Britain causes chaos across the region, with countries shutting off travel ties with the United Kingdom and disrupting trade ahead of the Christmas holiday.

BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin said the company is testing whether the vaccine is effective against the variant strain and expects results in the next two weeks.

“There is no reason to be concerned or worried until we get the data,” he said.

The 27 EU member states that want shots produced in BioNTech’s manufacturing sites in Germany, and Pfizer’s site in Puurs, Belgium, will receive them on Saturday so vaccinations can start on Sunday, chief financial officer Sierk Poetting said.

“We have a very tight delivery schedule into all the European countries,” he said.

Pfizer and BioNTech have said they expect to produce 1.3 billion doses in 2021. Executives at the German biotech company said it is looking for ways to boost output capacity to meet global demand as governments struggle to tame the pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people globally and crushed economies worldwide.

BioNTech plans to start production in February at its new site in Marburg, Germany, Poetting said.

It has said previously the facility, which it bought in September, would eventually have an annual production capacity of up to 750 million doses.

“We are scouting every possibility to produce as many vaccines as possible in 2021 and then thereafter,” said Poetting, adding that there was nothing specific to discuss yet.

While the approval by the European Union is a major step in tackling the virus, coming after similar moves by the United Kingdom and the United States, it will take time to inoculate the world.

Sahin estimated that 60-80% of the global population could be vaccinated by autumn next year, as vaccines by other drugmakers like Moderna also get rolled out.

“This is really important, because this winter we will not have an impact on the infection numbers, but we must have an impact so that the next winter will be the new normal,” he said. (Reporting by John Miller in Zurich and Patricia Weiss in Frankfurt Writing by Josephine Mason Editing by David Goodman, Kirsten Donovan)

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