EU behind Britain and the US in rolling out Covid vaccine

The European Commission says the Pfizer BioNTech Covid vaccine will be made available across the EU from 27 December, almost three weeks after vaccinations began in the UK.

The European Medicines Agency has come under criticism for reacting ponderously to the results of the vaccine’s successful clinical trials, released last month. From the outset, the regulator has been eager to manage expectations, warning approval would come at the end of the year in a best-case scenario.  

As late as yesterday, the EMA decided to bring forward the all-important meeting of its expert panel from 29 December to next Monday. By then the UK’s vaccine program will already be in its third week, a source of bitter resentment in the EU. The vaccine was developed in partnership with German firm BioNTech and is manufactured in Belgium.

Even if the EMA panel gives its approval at the earliest opportunity, more bureaucratic hurdles await at the European Commission which needs to give its final sign off. Only then can the first batches of the jab be transported around Europe.

A health-policy spokesperson for the European Commission assured Bloomberg the vaccine would be “on the market within two days” of the EMA giving the go-ahead. However, in her tweet announcing “Europe’s moment” when vaccinations across Europe will begin, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earmarked the “27, 28 and 29 December”, suggesting the EU is expecting delays.

It had been hoped the EU could find a way of bypassing conditional marketing authorization, which requires more evidence than the emergency verification procedures adopted by the United States and Britain.

It has also emerged that the experts of a handful of EU members states have held up the process, a case of being only as fast as your slowest partner.

According to three officials present last week’s EU summit, the delays caused by the more sluggish experts led to a heated exchange between leaders.

It’s not just a question of time, but also volume. The EU has ordered 300 million doses, far less than one per head. The UK Government has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford University AstraZeneca vaccine alone.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, who has championed a collective approach to deploying the vaccine across the EU, has tested positive for Covid-19.

“The President of the Republic has been diagnosed positive for Covid-19 today,” said a spokesperson at the Elysée palace this morning. The diagnosis was made following a “test performed at the onset of the first symptom.”