Shortages threaten to kill EU consensus over jabs

EU leaders are panicking over rapidly dwindling stocks of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine, the only jab so far approved by the bloc (the UK’s MHRA has approved two others developed by Oxford AstraZeneca and Moderna).

In a tense video conference, the shaky consensus among member states to have the European Commission run the vaccine programme became shakier still.

The desperate shortage prompted Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to propose buying up millions of doses of the Oxford vaccine straight away, ready to inject upon regulatory approval. However, in typical EU fashion, the suggestion sparked a row over the legality of such a measure, however wise it may be. The European Medicines Agency is expected to give the Oxford vaccine the all-clear on 29 January.

Emmanuel Macron is thought to be on Frederiksen’s side in openly favouring “the finalisation of pre-orders”.  

However, the Netherlands’ influential Prime Minister Mark Rutte took the view that a delay must not be avoided if it is “necessary”.

“Everyone would like this to happen quickly, not longer than necessary, but I underline: necessary. The time that’s needed must really be taken” said Rutte.

“It’s very important for the support base for the vaccination program and people’s willingness to get vaccinated that there’s an absolute conviction that if a vaccine was approved, all scientific debates have happened meticulously…without political pressure.”

European Council President Charles Michel attempted to deflect attention away from the EU’s slow vaccine roll-out by shifting attention to the only supplier, Pfizer, which has had to pause production to refit part of its Belgian facility.

Hungary has decided to take the matter into its own hands after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán described the EU programme as “frustratingly” slow.

Yesterday, Hungarian regulators gave preliminary approval to Russia’s Sputnik jab as well as Oxford AstraZeneca’s. The foreign minister will meet officials in Moscow to discuss a mass-purchase. Budapest has also dispatched envoys to Beijing to look into bringing in China’s Sinopharm vaccine.

Meanwhile, Germany has purchased vaccines directly from BioNTech, the government in Berlin refuses to comment on whether it has breached EU rules. 

The European Union has been plagued with problems ever since it took effective ownership of the pandemic by running the vaccine response. After the UK and US beat the EU to approving the Pfizer jab in December, European leaders forced the medicines agency to speed up its timetable. Injections still only began on the cusp of the new year.

Earlier this month, German Social Democrat Karl Lauterbach accused the French Government of interfering in the EU’s vaccine procurement to boost sales of its flagging Sanofi vaccine.  

“The French insisted for the number of [Pfizer] doses to not be too large compared to [the number of Sanofi jabs] although this vaccine was far from ready,” Said Lauterbach.  

The Sanofi virus is well behind schedule due to mishaps with clinical trials and has been described as a “French industrial fiasco”.

The EU had originally ordered only 100 million doses of the Pfizer jab for almost 450 million people. The number has since been raised to 600 million. 400 million doses of the Oxford vaccine and 300 million of the Sanofi jab have been ordered, but Moderna has only received an order for 160 million doses of its effective Covid jab.

At the meeting, the EU also pushed to develop capacity for decoding new strains of the virus after the UK was the first to sequence the latest and most lethal mutation of the virus found in Europe thanks to its world-leading genetics sectoronly Denmark has anything like the same capacity in Europe.

This latest lofty objective reflects deep anxiety in the bloc that the EU is not equipped to take on the pandemic.  

“We hadn’t taken into account that these mutations would be more contagious than the virus that we already knew,” said a senior official familiar with the discussions at the leaders’ meeting who spoke to Politico.

“Tonight, was also a wake-up call for member states. To say: ‘Hey, we need sufficient sequencing.’”

Whether they’ll get there is another matter entirely.