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Desperate for an injection

Weekly analysis and untold stories

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Desperate for an injection

It is times like these in which the notion of European solidarity comes under the most scrutiny. Vaccine nationalism, Vaccine protectionism, Vaccine hijacking, Vaccine wars – call it what you will, there is a simple fact at the heart of this week’s story: we are all desperate to immunize ourselves before anyone else.

What this simple fact exposes is the futility at the heart of the European Commission’s attempts to build an organic consensus of solidarity, when the prevailing logic of national governments at the current time is to ensure that they are able to amass as many vaccines for their own citizens as possible.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Cast your minds back to the first wave of the pandemic last year, when we saw certain protectionist moves from member states in terms of the supply of face masks. Both France and Germany had banned the export of surgical masks and medical equipment to European countries. So much for solidarity.

This week’s fiasco over the provision of the AstraZeneca vaccine quickly mutated into an acrimonious spat between the Commission and the pharmaceutical firm. Following AstraZeneca’s dreaded admission that they would not be able to fulfil their EU quotas on time, accusations begun to emanate from certain quarters in Brussels that they felt the EU were being treated as ‘second-class citizens.

On Friday evening the Commission came under heavy criticism,  as confusion emerged as to whether the EU executive had invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement, which allows either the UK or the EU to act unilaterally on introducing restrictions on the Irish border, under emergency situations.

The Article was noted in a regulation published on the Commission’s website, but was soon withdrawn. The Commission said it has been published in error. First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster described it as an act of hostility, and Irish Taoiseach Michaèl Martin and the UK Prime minister Boris Johnson jumped on the phone to Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen. A statement from 10 Downing Street expressed ‘grave concerns’ over the Commission’s move, which sources said would be resolved by Saturday morning.

Earlier on Friday, for a couple of hours, at least, frustrations had been appeased, as the Commission on Friday announced that they had finally managed to convince AstraZeneca to publish the forlorn contract, detailing the terms under which the agreement had been made.

The contract was indeed published but, alas, not without a hefty portion of redactions over certain ‘sensitive’ parts. However, there was another twist in the tale, when it transpired that the text behind the redactions in the contract could be accessed by a simple trick on Adobe reader. In the end, journalists were able to piece together a large portion of the missing words. However, that which remained inaccessible were the dates for the delivery schedules of the vaccines to be supplied, an ‘estimated,’ delivery schedule, I might add.

The EU executive has been reticent about commenting on the investigation that has been launched this week into AstraZeneca’s Belgian plant, after suspicions were aroused as to the veracity of the company’s original claims, with some believing there to be a preference for the company to first supply the UK with the vaccine, due to the simple fact that the UK had made an order 3 months earlier. To this end, the EU’s Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides quipped, “that may work at the neighbourhood butcher’s but not in contracts and not in our advanced purchase agreements.”

The reason why the Commission is under such pressure is due to comparison with other countries – predominantly the UK, who have already issued first-round vaccines to close to 8 million people. Without this prism of comparison, there would be much less of an onus on the EU executive to make haste with such desperation.

And there is of course the inevitable politicking with the UK about this issue, however distanced the preservation of human life should be from the industry of vaccine diplomacy.

To be fair, this spirit of competition seems to have been taken up with more vigour by the Brits than by the EU. While the UK government hasn’t entirely come out with statements attesting to such a bend towards competitiveness and rivalry, their actions speak louder than words: the country made a pre-order for 60 million supplies of the US vaccine Novavax in August, whilst the EU conducted ‘explanatory talks’ on a deal for 100 million doses in December.

And then there is the vacillating and frankly fragmentary narrative over the efficacy of some of the different vaccines on offer. On Thursday, the German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that the AstraZeneca vaccine wasn’t suitable for those over the age of 65 due to a lack of data. Despite this, by Friday afternoon, the European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine. For their part, the Commission said they would swiftly follow suit in issuing authorization.

But again, the UK seemed to be one step ahead. On Thursday evening, news broke that Novavax trials had concluded the vaccine was 89.3% effective against the virus generally. By Friday morning, the UK’s regulator had approved the Novavax vaccine.

And don’t even mention Hungary’s recent moves, which include approving a Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine as well as the Chinese Sinopharm medicine, marking a complete divergence from other EU member states. But the EU may not have a choice but to turn east before it gets too late. It’s all a measure of priority.

Against this backdrop, the UK has been accused of embarking on a ‘vaccine war’ by the EU’s Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders. Speaking on Belgian radio on Friday, he said: “The EU Commission has pushed to co-ordinate the vaccines contracts on behalf of the 27 precisely to avoid a vaccines war between EU countries, but maybe the UK wants to start a vaccine war?”

But the Commission has failed to grasp the market dynamics of the pharmaceutical industry, and, alongside the current rush for vaccine procurement, this creates a sense of urgency that is unrequited in the instruments that the EU has so far deployed to secure vaccine contracts.

In this regard, the EU’s approach in adopting ‘conditional authorization’ for vaccine rollouts against the UK’s ‘emergency-use authorization’ is the key issue.

While the conditional method is more time-consuming, the standards that medicines are required to meet are higher. The emergency-use strategy is less about painstakingly exhaustive standards, and more about speed in deployment. The two very different approaches of vaccine approval could prove to be the undoing of either one of the higher administrations. Only time will expose which one was the most futile.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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