EU seeks to boost credibility despite slow vaccine rollout

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The European Union on Monday defended its flagging coronavirus vaccine program, which has come under criticism from the World Health Organization, EU states and recently departed member Britain.

Ten days of bad news about stalled deliveries from producers, a rusty rollout by member states were capped last weekend when the EU made a hasty U-turn on plans to set up controls on the island of Ireland — between the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland and the EU’s Republic of Ireland — to make sure vaccines wouldn’t be illegally transported to Britain.

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Considering that avoiding a visible border to keep peace on the island was a key tenet of the Brexit EU-UK divorce agreement, that plan was aborted just before it became a firm decision, yet it left the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, with plenty of diplomatic egg on its face.

Britain’s media had a feast, depicting the EU as untrustworthy, though the U.K. government kept a low profile on the issue.

“These are things which happen when you are working at full speed to deal with a developing situation,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.

“We have a saying only the pope is infallible. Important thing is that you recognize them early on — in this case so early that it was before the decision was finalized — and that you correct them,” he said.

Overall though, the European Commission stood by its plans to check on exports produced on its territory and make sure they were siphoned off somewhere else if the EU contract with producers stipulated that they should be used in the EU. The World Health Organization criticized the new EU export rules as “not helpful.”

The EU was moved to take such measures because the rollout of vaccines to its 27 member states is lagging far behind nations such as Israel and the United Kingdom, and even its own delivery plans. The EU as an institution has a massive stake in the success of the rollout as a way of showing the importance of cooperation and countering those who say it is irrelevant.

Sandra Gallina, the general director in charge of health at the European Commission told legislators Monday that “we bought all the doses that were available in time (...). What we buy, is a dose delivered in a certain schedule in time. This is the whole issue, it is to have the companies delivering by the time that they have committed to deliver.”

Despite the repeated setbacks, the EU remains confident member states can achieve the commission’s goal that 70 percent of the adult population across the bloc will be vaccinated by the end of the summer. Gallina said the bloc expects to have received 400 million doses by the end of June.

Still, critics have said that the European Commission should have started clinching contracts much earlier. AstraZeneca, which is in a dispute with the EU over deliveries, said Britain was in an advantageous position since it made a deal a few months earlier than Brussels.

There is general agreement that the EU got good prices the member states could never have obtained on their own and that generous support for the vaccines companies amounting to 2.7 billion euros ($3.3 billion) helped speed up research and increase production capacity.

But speed has been the EU’s Achilles’ Heel. Countries such as Austria have derided the more unwieldy approval process and Italy has even threatened court action against producers when deliveries started flagging. It is no different in the EU’s biggest member state.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and German state governors held a meeting Monday with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry on ways to beef up the country’s sluggish vaccination campaign.

By Sunday, some 1.93 million people had received their first dose in Germany, a nation of 83 million, and 532,000 had received a second dose In comparison, Britain, a country of 67 million, has given nearly 9 million people a first vaccine shot.

“There were good reasons why we were slower,” Merkel told reporters after the meeting, citing as an example the EU’s decision to require regular approval for the vaccines, helping boost confidence in the shots, rather than provide faster emergency authorization as happened in Britain.

She noted that AstraZeneca, which initially said it would only deliver 31 million of a promised first batch of 80 million doses, has now agreed to supply 9 million additional doses of its vaccine to the EU during the first quarter — bringing the total to half what the company originally aimed for.

Pfizer, which developed the first widely tested and approved coronavirus vaccine together with German firm BioNTech, also said it expects to increase global production this year from 1.3 million doses to 2 billion. Up to 75 million of those additional doses will be delivered to the EU in the second quarter.

“Things will increase, but it will be a long road,” said Merkel, adding that the government would strive for transparency on any potential delays.

She said Germany would still be able to offer all adults a vaccine by Sept. 21 — days before the country holds a national election in which Merkel won’t stand for chancellor again.

“But nobody can provide the absolute final certainty,” Merkel cautioned. “If for example a mutation (of the virus) arises that the vaccine doesn’t work on, then we’ll start over again.”

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