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View from Brussels: Vaccination breakdown

Image credit: Getty Images

The EU has had a jittery start to the vaccination race, as an ugly spat with a pharmaceutical giant, the Brexit hangover and lack of coordination have all soured the bloc’s inoculation efforts. Most of the problems, though, are self-inflicted.

Not even the coronavirus is immune to the dreaded lurgy that is Brexit fever.

Amid an unpleasant disagreement with vaccine producer AstraZeneca, the EU’s executive branch – the European Commission – briefly triggered a provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol, without notifying EU governments or the UK beforehand.

‘Article 16’ is the part of the agreement that allows either side to suspend trade operations if they detect “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. Vaccine shipments – or lack thereof – caused the Commission to get trigger happy.

The full fallout of that misguided act is still to be felt, as the EU-UK Brexit deal has not even been given a final rubber-stamp by the European Parliament yet and Westminster is likely to use Brussels’ botch as an excuse to rejig aspects of the agreement.

But the tension of the cross-Channel divorce aside, there are serious cracks showing in the EU’s vaccination plan, as the 27 countries that make up the Union break rank and chart their own course out of the pandemic.

Hungary, often an outlier, was first to step out of line when its government said it would buy doses of the Chinese and Russian vaccines. The Commission said no problem, through gritted teeth.

Sinovac and Sputnik V have not been approved by the EU’s medicines agency (EMA). The Commission has tasked the EMA with approving the jabs before they are used, although that only applies to the vaccines that Brussels has bought on behalf of EU countries.

The Czech Republic’s Prime Minister will visit Budapest this Friday to see how Hungary is using the Sputnik jab, suggesting that Prague might be the next country to ‘Buy Russian’, especially given the strong clinical results the vaccine posted earlier this week.

Brussels also has a problem with the vaccines that are part of its bulk-buying programme, which includes Pfizer/BionTech, Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca, J&J and more. 

Germany was accused in January of going behind the Commission’s back and trying to buy more vaccine doses for its own use, ignoring the EU’s sound logic that if Brussels does not do the purchasing, there is likely to be a bidding and supply war between 27 countries.

In that situation, rich large countries like Germany will always win out against the likes of Cyprus, Malta and Portugal. Berlin’s dodgy-dealings have been quickly hushed up and the Commission hopes no other governments will try to do the same.

Now there is a new problem and it is again linked to the AstraZeneca jab, which was given EMA blessing earlier this week.

The agency confirmed that there is not much data for over-65s at the moment but concluded that there is no reason to suspect the vaccine will not provide high levels of protection for elderly people.

That appraisal was not enough for the likes of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands, which have all restricted the use of the jab to the under-65s until more data about its efficacy is available.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who is the head of state of a country that posts some of the highest numbers of vaccine-sceptical citizens, said last week that “we have very little information... but all the indications today are that it is quasi-ineffective for those over 65 years old”.

That latter claim was totally refuted by Sir John Bell, a member of the Oxford University team that worked on the vaccine, who said of Macron’s comment: “I’m not sure where he got that from.”

Sir John added that he suspects it is “a bit of demand management” by the President.

The incident speaks to a larger problem that the EU will have to address sooner or later: the EMA is ostensibly the preeminent authority on medicines and has been tasked with making scientific, independent decisions about what vaccines to authorise.

By going against its advice, governments are undermining that authority and politicising an issue that should all be about science. It is a slippery slope, as the EU will have to face up to other challenges like climate change, where politics can do more harm than good.

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