Vaccine wars

Vaccine wars

 Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, defended the slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines across the EU this week, and suggested that nations which had moved faster had compromised on “safety and efficacy”. The Commission, which negotiated the bloc’s vaccine purchases, has been greatly criticised over delays to delivery. By midweek, the EU had administered just three doses per 100 people, compared to ten in the US, and 15 in the UK. Jens Spahn, the German health minister, said it would be “at least another ten tough weeks” before vaccine shortages eased.

Last week, the Commission became embroiled in a row with Anglo-Swedish drug maker AstraZeneca, which had announced that it could supply only 31 million of the 80 million doses of the Oxford vaccine ordered by the EU for the first quarter. The EU imposed restrictions on vaccine exports to other nations, including the UK – a decision criticised by the WHO. The Commission also tried to impose controls at the Irish border, by triggering a clause in the Brexit agreement. Both Boris Johnson and the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin expressed “deep unhappiness”, and the decision was abruptly reversed.

The Commission’s vaccine programme has provided “the best possible advertisement for Brexit”, said Die Zeit (Hamburg). “It is acting slowly, bureaucratically and in a protectionist manner. And if something goes wrong, it’s everyone else’s fault.” Its blunders are causing serious damage not just to the EU’s citizens – by delaying the vaccine roll-out – but also to its image in the world. The decision to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, overriding Brexit arrangements, was a “serious misjudgement”, said The Irish Times. It’s extraordinary that von der Leyen should have waded into this ultra-sensitive area without even consulting Dublin.

The vaccine programme has shown Britain at its best (see page 24), and the EU “at its worst”, said The Observer. “In order to demonstrate EU ‘solidarity’ and the power of the single market”, all 27 member states were involved in the acquisition process. Inevitably, this slowed it up: an EU contract with AstraZeneca, ready in June, wasn’t signed until August (three months after the UK’s). Other orders were held up amid haggling over price and liability issues – mere details in a pandemic. Europe’s medicines regulator has also “dithered”, too: the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was only approved last week. The EU must “get its house in order”.

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