View from Brussels: EU vaccine spat back with a bang

The European Union’s handling of the Covid vaccine procurement process was initially criticised as controversies over delays and alleged preferential contracts spoiled Brussels’ copybook. More hurt may now be on its way courtesy of Poland.

Slower and lower vaccination rates were a real problem in the early days of the EU’s vaccine rollout, although the tortoise did finally come good in the end when jab supplies eventually caught up with demand.

Now the issue is the very opposite, there is too little demand for supply. That poses a problem for the EU executive branch, the European Commission, which is in charge of the procurement programme for the entire bloc of 27 countries.

Poland is the first to throw a spanner in the works, confirming this week that it will no longer be drawing jabs from the EU’s pool nor will it pay for more doses. It means an inevitable legal challenge with the pharma giants making the vaccines.

The change of policy is down to reduced appetite for vaccines in Poland. Compared with the EU’s average inoculation rate of 75 per cent (two-dose regime), only 60 per cent of Poles have been vaccinated, ranking it among the worst in the EU.

Moreover, only 31 per cent of the population has received a booster jab compared with the EU’s 53 per cent average. Slovakia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria are the only EU countries that rank lower.

“At the end of last week, we used the force majeure clause and informed both the European Commission and the main vaccine producer that we are refusing to take these vaccines at the moment and we are also refusing to pay," health minister Adam Niedzielski said.

Poland’s part of the EU-wide contract means it is on the hook for more than £1 billion up to the end of 2023. The EU Commission has been rather diligent in securing enough supply for booster doses and possible extra variant-tailored jabs.

Germany is planning to offer vaccinations coded specifically to the omicron variant later this year in September, according to health minister Karl Lauterbach. Other countries are considering the same, as well as fourth doses for vulnerable groups.

That means that there is a significant schism opening up between EU member states that have come to the end of their vaccination potential and other countries with populations still willing to get inoculated when asked.

How this affects the EU’s procurement process is difficult to judge, as the contracts between big pharma firms such as Pfizer and Moderna are confidential. Vaccine delivery details are also not disclosed.

That prompted an investigation into Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the Commission, who was heavily criticised by the EU’s Ombudsman for not disclosing text messages she sent and received from Pfizer’s CEO.

In any case, the EU is continuing to try and prevent a full-blown legal challenge erupting. A spokesperson for the Commission admitted earlier this week that the executive understands “Poland’s difficult position” but that there are binding obligations in place.

Poland may not be the only EU member to attempt to break ties. Hungary notably refused to participate in one round of vaccine procurement in 2021 but then quietly joined the EU’s programme late last year when the omicron variant first became widespread.

Given that Budapest is currently locked in an ugly spat with Brussels about rule-of-law matters and its different position on foreign policy towards Ukraine, it is not hard to imagine that another dispute will be thrown on the fire.

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