Was EU solidarity to blame for bloc’s poor vaccination campaign?
European leaders signed a series of vaccine deals but are lagging behind with rollouts
Conceived as a model of European solidarity, the EU’s Covid vaccination campaign has instead descended into quarrels between member states and a public fallout with one of the world’s biggest drug makers.
Briefings coming out of Brussels suggest that a crisis meeting between AstraZeneca and the bloc’s health officials yesterday saw the two sides making peace, as European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides pledged that the EU “will work with the company to find solutions and deliver vaccines rapidly”.
But the temporary ceasefire has done little to temper fury among the EU27 over the bloc’s joint vaccine procurement plan, which is coming under fire for being “too bureaucratic, too limiting to its members” and “too slow”, Politico reports.
As the pandemic spread across Europe last March, the University of Oxford “was on the brink” of putting pen to paper on a contract with German pharmaceutical giant Merck “to research and develop a coronavirus vaccine”, The Telegraph reports.
But at the last minute, the British government took a “huge gamble” and “helped steer Oxford towards a partnership with British-based AstraZeneca instead”, says the paper.
The gamble paid off when the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab last month became only the second in the world to be given regulatory approval, providing the UK with a steady stream of effective vaccines to bolster the country’s jab campaign.
On the Continent, however, the decision to “prioritise process over speed” and to “put solidarity between EU countries ahead of giving individual governments more room to manoeuvre” has seen the bloc fall behind, says Politico.
The EU’s vaccine strategy was intended to be a “forceful show of European solidarity, an assertion of the single market’s buying power”, as the bloc pledged to inoculate 70% of adults in member states by summer.
But the result has been a slow vaccines rollout that by the end of last week had seen the bloc administer just “two jabs per 100 residents, compared with over ten for the UK and nearly seven for the US”, according to analysis by the Financial Times.
And “there are no signs that the vaccination rate in the EU is accelerating”, writes Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, in an article for The Guardian.
Quick off the mark
While the UK was able to opt out of the EU-wide procurement scheme - in part due to the impending Brexit deadline - many European member states that did not have that choice have voiced annoyance at the need to show solidarity over speed.
As the UK became the first country in the world to give regulatory approval to a vaccine, and the US launched Operation Warp Speed, EU leaders “were up in arms about the longer wait before vaccinations could begin”, Politico says.
The leaders of Greece, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Austria signed a joint letter to President of the European Council Charles Michel calling for the bloc to “send out a strong signal to the European Medicines Agency” to ensure “the approval procedure for vaccine candidates is as efficient as possible”.
Critics have also argued that “the EU ordered too few vaccines too late”, writes Wolff in The Guardian.
“Purchases were slowed down further as the EU insisted that liability in case of negative side-effects on health remains with pharma companies and therefore rejected early emergency authorisation,” he continues. And negotiating “low EU purchase prices per vaccine might have further slowed down deliveries”.
Meanwhile, says Politico, “European citizens weren’t getting the jabs that could slow the epidemic and save their lives”.
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has described the EU vaccine rollout campaign as “a true European success story”.
But even as the bloc entered a war of words with AstraZeneca earlier this week, anger in the European press was targeted at EU leaders.
German newspaper Die Zeit has accused the bloc of “acting slowly, bureaucratically and in a protectionist way”, adding: “If something goes wrong, it’s everyone else’s fault. This is how many Britons see the EU and their prejudices have been confirmed this week.
“The European Commission is currently providing the best advertisement for Brexit.”
In Belgium, De Standaard has accused the EU of “gross negligence” over its slow rollout, while Polish newspaper Politiken reports that “more and more voices are saying that the EU is responsible for the delays”.
Italian paper La Repubblica - which this week published an explosive interview with AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot - has complained that “doses delivered to the different nations… are not the same for everyone”. The allegation follows reports in German magazine Der Spiegel that larger EU member states are receiving an unfair allocation.
And with the dispute with AstraZeneca over vaccine supplies yet to be resolved, the in-fighting looks set to continue.
If the EU “sacrificed speed for process and solidarity, it remains an open question whether it got what it wanted”, says Politico.