Behind the scenes

Where are ‘desperate’ EU countries turning in search of extra Covid vaccines?

Europeans look to Russia and China, as well as private fraudsters, for much-needed doses

European countries left with a shortage of vaccine doses by the EU’s stuttering procurement process are turning to the “grey market” in their search for more jabs.

“Desperate” EU nations are beginning to take “pitches from around the world at often exorbitant prices”, The New York Times  reports, with Russia and China offering vaccines alongside a “murky open market” where EU leaders are “unsure of the sellers and the products”.

As the bloc’s powerhouses increasingly fall behind in their efforts to vaccinate their populations, the race to secure enough doses is ramping up, with countries “under growing pressure to expand their efforts”, the Financial Times adds.

Uneasy trading

The EU has said that “countries should not be cutting separate deals with the same pharmaceutical companies that it has negotiated contracts with for the whole bloc”, the NYT says. But that has not stopped individual nations from agreeing deals with Russia and China to make up a shortfall in the number of doses required.

The Netherlands has agreed to buy 600,000 doses of the Pfizer jab, with officials refusing to say which country was providing the vaccines, while Hungary has “unilaterally approved and bought Russian and Chinese vaccines”, the paper continues.

While Hungary is the first country in the bloc to agree to buy Russian and Chinese jabs, “others, such as Croatia and the Czech Republic, are weighing similar moves”, the NYT adds. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also spoken with Vladimir Putin about manufacturing the Sputnik V vaccine on the continent in an effort to bolster supplies.

Viktor Orban’s eagerness to do a deal with his allies to the East is an extension of the Hungarian prime minister’s “eurosceptic communication”, Andras Biro-Nagy, from the Budapest-based Policy Solutions, told EUobserver. Orban has previously moved to “strengthen ties” with the two countries, meaning he was well placed to quickly negotiate a deal for vaccines, the site adds.

Hungary has also signed a deal for five million vaccine doses from Sinopharm, the Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical company, after giving it emergency-use approval on 29 January. The vaccine is “already in use in Hungary’s non-EU neighbour Serbia”, EuroNews reports, where 1.44 million people have so far been vaccinated, according to Oxford University data.

‘Ghost’ jabs

As “stumbles by the world’s richest bloc of nations turn vaccine politics toxic”, many of Europe’s “senior government officials and even heads of government have received dozens of unsolicited offers for vaccines”, the NYT says.

“Few of the sellers appear to be legitimate operators,” the paper says, with Ville Itala, director-general of the European Anti-Fraud (OLAF) office, saying: “They are offering vaccines, quite huge amounts, so far it’s 460 million doses, which is around €3bn [£2.5bn].”

Two officials from the European Commission told Sky News that there is growing concern over “ghost” vaccines being offered to EU nations. “There is a really large quantity,” said one, adding: “Nobody has any idea what is actually in these vials… The best case is it's just not working, in the worst case it's a very serious issue.” Another anonymous official told Reuters that “it is unclear whether these are genuine vaccine doses or if we are just talking about salt water in small vials”. 

OLAF has launched an investigation into the efforts to “cash in” on the bloc’s stumbling jab campaign, Sky News says. However, “with offers piling in, officials say they are prepared to examine each one carefully before rejecting it”, the NYT adds.

“Most of the middlemen claim to be selling the AstraZeneca shot,” the paper says, with “brokers in Dubai and elsewhere” so far approaching the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Finland and Italy.

Changing strategy

“Germany, France and other European countries are struggling to accelerate their Covid-19 vaccination programmes,” the FT reports, with Germany facing “pressure to change its Covid vaccination strategy” to more closely resemble the UK’s approach of delaying the second dose, The Telegraph adds.

On Sunday, “the country's top vaccine regulator acknowledged that advice against giving the AstraZeneca jab to over-65s had been flawed”, the paper continues, prompting Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccination to call for the government to change tack after a study found it could save 15,000 lives.

The FT says that Germany and France are struggling in part because of “delays in using available vaccine doses” also seen in Italy and the Netherlands. 

European Commission leaders, who will discuss the bloc’s progress during a video conference on Thursday, have urged member states “to deliver on the actual vaccination as quickly as possible and ensure that it follows the pace of deliveries”.

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