Europe ‘could have asked for more vaccines’ says Scholz
The EU stunned the international community this week when it triggered an emergency clause of the Brexit deal. It banned the export of COVID-19 vaccines into Britain in the middle of the ongoing row between UK-based pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and Brussels over the delivery of vaccines to EU member states. Using Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the bloc attempted to install checks at the borders of Ireland and Northern Ireland to prevent shipments into the UK.
After widespread condemnation, Brussels reversed its decisions just hours after it was first announced.
The sudden decision — described as a “blunder” by those across the political spectrum — followed AstraZeneca’s warning that, despite signing a contract, the bloc may not be able to get the 80 million vaccine doses initially promised.
The pharmaceutical company claimed the deliveries up until March will be delayed due to a production issue within Europe, reportedly at a plant in Belgium.
It announced the bloc would receive approximately 31 million instead.
But, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hit back, and claimed the bloc’s contract with AstraZeneca is “crystal clear” and “binding”.
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The EU’s row with AstraZeneca has hit the headlines over the last week
Other EU officials even suggested doses produced in the UK could be redirected to fulfil the EU’s quota, even though Britain signed up to the AstraZeneca vaccine three months before the bloc.
As divisions over access to the vaccines deepen, a glance back at the bloc’s early vaccine tactics seemed to forecast the current row.
Stephane Bancel, the CEO of US biotech company Moderna, warned that by dragging its feet over purchasing its vaccine, the EU would slow down deliveries — and other nations would jump ahead in the queue.
Speaking to the French outlet AFP in November, he explained: “It is clear that with a delay this is not going to limit the total amount but it is going to slow down delivery.”
He said that in contrast, the US reserved 100 million doses back in August.
Negotiations with Canada were also completed after just two weeks.
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Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel warned that the EU was acting too slowly last November
Moderna was in talks with the EU to buy 80 million doses of the vaccine back in the summer, but no contract was signed at the time.
He claimed there was some significant red tape slowing down the approval process of the vaccine, because the EU is a 27-nation strong bloc.
Again, the EU was criticised for being slow to approve of the AstraZeneca vaccine compared to the UK.
Despite Brussels’ extensive complaints about AstraZeneca’s slow rollout, it only gave the pharmaceuticals the go-ahead on Friday.
Mr Bancel’s comments subsequently show the EU made the same blunders with both Moderna and AstraZeneca.
The UK approved the Moderna vaccine earlier this month and has ordered 17 million doses to be delivered for spring — making it the third jab to receive the OK from Britain.
Then, last week, the EU was dealt another vaccine blow amid the ongoing tensions with AstraZeneca.
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President of the European Commission Urusla von der Leyen with Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Moderna announced that it would also be short on promised doses, meaning France was to have 150,000 fewer vaccines next month.
Italy and Switzerland would also miss the anticipated production target by approximately 20 percent.
Back in November, the Moderna CEO appeared to predict slow deliveries when he said: “So we will get started in Switzerland, it will get started a little in Japan, Israel, Canada — in the countries that have placed orders.
“But I will not be able to send products to countries that have not placed orders.
“The longer they wait, the longer it will take.”He also noted that price was not an obstacle in the negotiations, but refused to be drawn on further details.
Commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker spoke out at the time, and defended the EU’s robust approval process.
He said: “Are we simply concluding contracts because all of a sudden, there are some nice press reports about the status of this vaccine?
“That is clearly not the case.”
Covid-19 vaccinations across the world
Yet, Mr Bancel told AFP Moderna had started talks with some EU countries back in May, but unlike the US, none had provided money up front to support the clinical trials.
Pfizer experienced a dip in deliveries from the middle of January too, but have promised to increase deliveries by the start of February 15.
The pharmaceutical company, which is partnered with the German company BioNtech, said it needed to slow production at a Belgian plant to help increase its output in the long term.
The EU’s shock decision to implement Article 16 to slow vaccine supplies to Britain last week also triggered frustration with the World Health Organisation.
It said “vaccine nationalism” risks only dragging the pandemic on for longer.
AstraZeneca’s chief executive Pascal Soriot also defended the company.
He said that its contract had only promised to meet the EU’s demands for its “best efforts”.
Speaking to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, he allegedly said, “the contract is very clear: Our commitment is, I am quoting, ‘our best effort’”.
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He added that the bloc is already getting more than its fair share of AstraZeneca’s vaccine supplies.
He said: “Europe is getting 17 percent of our global supply for a month for 5 percent of the world population.
“The problem is: 100 million doses is a lot; but we have 7.5 billion people in the world.”
He then dealt a final blow to the bloc’s vaccine rollout tactics and explained: “Europe at the time wanted to be supplied more or less at the same time as the UK, even though the contract was signed three months later.”