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Wednesday, Apr 14, 2021

The EU is blaming everyone but itself for its vaccine debacle

The EU is blaming everyone but itself for its vaccine debacle

Something has gone badly wrong with the EU's rollout of the Covid vaccine. Yet in its response to this debacle, Brussels seems determined to double down, engaging in behaviour of the pettiest kind as it blames everyone but itself for what has happened.
'The companies must deliver', Ursula von der Leyen, the EU commission's president said yesterday, as she announced the launch of a 'vaccine export transparency mechanism'. In reality, this plan to oblige companies to notify the commission when vaccines leave the EU (into Britain, for example) is an attempt to pile pressure on the pharmaceutical firms who have given us the only way out of the situation we find ourselves in.

To coin a favourite phrase from Brexit, von der Leyen's statement rather seems like having her cake and eating it. How can the EU on one hand claim it is acting altruistically for the ‘global common good’ and then announce that it is going to try and tie down those exporting perfectly legal, paid-for vaccines from the EU with unnecessary red tape? It was a masterclass in Potemkin rhetoric.

When von der Leyen tells pharmaceutical companies that ’they must honour their obligations’ she neglects to mention the role that the EU has played in the vaccine delays they are experiencing. Yes, AstraZeneca has experienced problems with vaccine yields in their European production facilities. But, according to the firm's CEO Pascal Soriot, vaccine supplies elsewhere, including in Australia, the US and Britain have all been beset by similar issues with yield.

The difference, which von der Leyen does not mention, is that other countries signed contracts with AstraZeneca earlier. This meant the pharmaceutical firm has had more time to iron out teething issues with the supply.

'The UK contract was signed three months before the EU contract, so with the UK we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we have experienced,’ Soriot said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Von der Leyen is being disingenuous then when she suggests that the delays are solely the responsibility of big pharma.

And, as for the claim that the EU has ‘invested billions’ to help develop the world’s first Covid-19 vaccines, she may again be inflating the EU’s role. The EU is hardly unique in pumping funds into vaccines, nor were its actions as altruistic as von der Leyen wants to suggest.

Like many developed countries, the EU made advance purchase orders in return for a set number of doses should the vaccine prove successful. This investment helped the likes of Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer bring their vaccines to market. The EU admits this itself in a November press release where it explains that the funding given to pharmaceuticals ‘would be considered as a down-payment on the vaccines that will actually be purchased by member states.’

There is also the EU's €500 million (£440 million) pledge to Covax – the global initiative in charge of securing collective vaccine supplies for lower income countries, who may not be able to procure their own. To put this donation into context, Britain – a nation with a population just over a tenth of the size of the EU – has pledged £548 million from its aid budget. It's safe to say that the money given from the EU budget falls a little short of the picture von der Leyen paints in her statement of a benevolent EU single-handedly coming to the rescue of the world’s most needy.

To make matters worse, the legislation von der Leyen announced on Tuesday is at best short-termist and at worst malicious. Such a knee-jerk attempt to control vaccine exports, the deals for which were agreed months ago, shows just how out of touch the EU has become. Having been painfully slow out of the blocks in its vaccine negotiations, insisting that all countries in the bloc negotiate collectively, it now wants to lay the blame at everyone’s feet but its own.

The EU needs to think very carefully about how it proceeds from here. The requirement for pharmaceuticals to ‘notify’ the EU about vaccine exports sounds ominous. It would also only benefit the EU materially if they were prepared to block the export of vaccines destined for other countries and seize them for use inside Europe. This would be drastic action indeed. If the EU is serious about its heavy-handed threats, it needs to face up to the diplomatic headaches it will create further down the road.

UK/EU relations are already on a knife edge after Brexit. Add to this the growing distance between its stance on China and that of Downing Street, and the minor diplomatic spat over the privileges granted to the new EU ambassador, and it’s easy to imagine relations continuing to fray.

As galling as it is for von der Leyen to watch precious vaccine supplies being shipped across the Channel from Belgium, Britain would not be alone in its condemnation were the EU to slow down exports. There are plenty of other countries too who would not take kindly to such draconian interference. 3.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are due to be shipped to Australia, before the country begins to manufacture a further 50 million domestically. Will the EU seek to obstruct these too, especially with talks over a Free Trade Agreement rumbling on with €30 billion (£26 billion) of EU exports at stake?

Despite its efforts to argue otherwise, the EU’s collective vaccine strategy has failed. But now, instead of tackling the problem head on, von der Leyen seems to have made it her mission to slow down neighbouring countries’ access to doses in an effort to grasp at some semblance of vaccine parity. Unless she is prepared to halt supplies completely, it’s difficult to see what this policy achieves. What pharmaceutical will want to set up shop in Europe going forward if this is the way the EU behaves? Von Der Leyen can pursue her tinpot policy, but EU citizens will still be without their vaccines and Europe’s diplomatic standing will be dealt a fatal blow.
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