Needle shortages hamper vaccinations in France

Laurent Fignon is a geriatric doctor in the south of France.

He's having to improvise as he gives shots of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine because supplies of the right needles and syringes are so short.

Getting the full six doses from vials of the Pfizer shot requires needles that are both thin enough to minimize waste and long enough to deliver the vaccine into the recipient's shoulder muscle.

"We need these syringes now. We will need them in six months, but we also need them now, because with these syringes, you can get six doses per vial. That means you can vaccinate 20% more people, and that's considerable."

His hospital in Cannes received needles from the French public health authority that were too short.

That forced him to to hunt locally for supplies which he was lucky enough to source from another hospital nearby, but it raises a more pressing issue.

With similar shortages cropping up elsewhere in Europe, it's complicating an already stuttering start to vaccination efforts that followed the EU's relatively late approval of the Pfizer shot and the company's warning of near-term production delays.

"We're not at war. Emmanuel Macron repeated seven or eight times in March that we're at war. No, we're not at war, we're in a health crisis. But at the same time, sometimes we have to use means similar to a wartime economy to cope. We need this, we should be able to find factories in Europe today capable of producing several millions of this type of syringes before the autumn. We're not asking them to build a space shuttle - it's syringes, it's less complicated than making masks."

Pfizer now forecasts it will produce 2 billion doses this year, but this assumes it will be possible to extract the full six from each vial. It charges by the dose, meaning the cost of a vial has gone up 20%.

The European Commission is pressing Pfizer and BioNTech to deliver more of the low-dead-space needles to extract the extra dose.

Industry executives say that, while output of needles and syringes is sufficient to meet current demand, chaotic ordering means that they often do not get to where they are most urgently needed.

And work is under way to assess ways to meet future demand.