EU: Ursula von der Leyen is ‘under pressure’ says Adler
Leaked notes on internal EU meetings over the past month have revealed the EU’s top executives knew of the upcoming delays in the procurement of the coronavirus vaccine before the Commission set up the ambitious target of vaccinating 70 percent of adults by the end of summer. The EU initially kept no track of companies’ vaccine doses leaving the bloc, only realising after its own supplies were delayed it could not trace the millions of doses that had already been exported.
And as its attempts to win ground by legal means failed, the Commission faced sharp attacks from EU governments on its public communication strategy.
The notes, seen by Reuters, expose a climate of incompetence and chaos at the heart of Brussels.
In a pandemic that has killed over 700,000 people in Europe alone, the delays announced by the companies producing coronavirus vaccines – AstraZeneca PLC and Pfizer Inc. – risked leaving millions in Europe unprotected deep in the winter, just as new, more transmissible, variants were circulating and hospitals were being overwhelmed.
Vaccination centres from Madrid to Paris had closed for lack of supply.
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French ambassador Philippe Leglise-Costa said in a meeting of EU ambassadors last week: “This is a catastrophe.”
The Commission has often said it expects an exponential increase in the availability of vaccines from April.
Pfizer’s Chief Executive Albert Bourla told Reuters production is back on track in Europe after the company made changes at its Belgian manufacturing site to increase supply.
The vaccine squeeze was not just a public health nightmare, it was also a political crisis.
Britain, freshly divorced from the EU’s single market after five years of bitter negotiations, was inoculating people at a much faster pace than any EU country, public data show.
A senior EU diplomat who was present at a January 27 meeting told Reuters diplomats feared the Commission was losing the battle against a “narrative of big failure”.
They urged the Commission to cool a row with British company AstraZeneca for the sake of getting drugs as soon as possible, the notes show and people present said.
The Commission’s dilemma underscores the power of big drugmakers as governments scramble to vaccinate their citizens and the geopolitical tensions that can result.
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The notes show EU diplomats recognised the bloc may not benefit from arguing about contracts with AstraZeneca.
Instead, the Commission attacked the United Kingdom – which AstraZeneca said was preventing British-made vaccines from reaching Europe – only to swiftly step back after realising it risked disrupting a border agreement in the Brexit deal which London and Dublin said could have serious consequences for security in Northern Ireland.
Since then, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has attempted to regain the trust of leaders across all member states by admitting to her mistakes.
Speaking on Thursday, she admitted Brussels “underestimated” the challenges of the coronavirus vaccine rollout across the bloc.
In a bitter concession, the Commission President said manufacturing of the jabs will continue to be uneven and slow in the coming months. She said: “A start of vaccination does not mean a seamless flow of vaccine doses coming from the industry.
“This is a bitter learning part, and this we certainly have underestimated.
“Had I known what difficulties we have now with the Schwankungen, with the fluctuations in the beginning period, yes, we should have warned that this goes not seamless and smooth and in a straight upward movement at the very beginning.”
She said Brussels now expects to receive about 100 million vaccine doses in the first three months of this year, with deliveries increasing month by month.
She said: “It shows the direction of the delivery is the right one.
“It’s going up but we have now learned that there will always be ups and downs.”
Speaking of the cut in production by BioTech/Pfizer, Mrs von der Leyen said: “They had a dip.
“Why that? Because they expanded their production to a new site that took away for a week or two and a certain amount of doses reduced — the delivery of doses.
“But now they are catching up, I think until the end of the month, and then they will be able, because of the new sites, to scale-up.
“And this will certainly happen over and over again.
“We also always have to be prepared to have shortages of raw materials or components in our worldwide supply chains.
“This should not be underestimated.”
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