Friday, June 25, 2021

in-focus

EU leaders face further AstraZeneca vaccine shortages


When European Union leaders meet on Thursday afternoon to begin a two-day video conference, they'll underscore the severity of the continent's health situation and the need for member states to continue lockdowns that have roiled the economies of nations trying to curb the spread of Covid.

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They'll also discuss a controversial new proposal that will allow the EU to block the export of vaccines from pharmaceutical companies that haven't met their commitments to the bloc. The new rules, unveiled Wednesday, would also block shipments to countries that don't send full doses or ingredients back to the EU or that have better health situations or vaccination rates.

The leaders are under pressure to contain the pandemic, which has forced a new slate of restrictive measures throughout Europe. So far, the EU has administered 13 doses per 100 people, less than a third of what the U.K. has managed, according to Bloomberg's Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker. The U.S. has administered 40 doses.

The issue of the Italian shots will still hang over the conversation of EU leaders. AstraZeneca has said that 16 million doses found in a police raid at the Italian site run by Catalent were meant to be shipped to Europe and another 13 million were allocated for Covax, the program to supply developing countries.

That may not entirely convince EU officials who have grown increasingly suspicious of AstraZeneca, which has repeatedly failed to meet its commitments on vaccine deliveries.

The drugmaker's latest promise is for 30 million shots to be delivered to the EU this quarter, less than a third of its original commitment and it might even miss that target. As of Wednesday, the company had delivered just 18 million doses with a week to go before the deadline. AstraZeneca said that 10 million shots from the Italian storage facility should be delivered to EU countries by the end of the month.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Germans to be more optimistic and pull together to beat the coronavirus when she addressed the Bundestag on Thursday morning.

"You can't achieve anything if you only ever see the negative," Merkel told lawmakers in Berlin, a day after making a rare public apology over a botched plan for a hard Easter lockdown. She said that she can see "light at the end of the tunnel" even as aggressive mutations spread.

"We will defeat this virus, I am absolutely sure we'll manage it," she said. "So it's about joining forces and looking forward positively, even if the situation remains difficult. That's what I would ask for from every person in this country."

Some member states have for weeks been trading nasty threats and accusations over the redistribution of vaccines. At the center of the row, which has spilled from private meetings into the public domain, is a decision taken by Austria and five other central and eastern European governments to turn down more expensive jabs to bet on the cheaper AstraZeneca shots. As part of the EU distribution agreements, the vaccines those countries didn't want were purchased by other member states. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has wrongly accused the bloc of running a "bazaar" for vaccine doses and some governments of securing secret deals.

The Austrian government had proposed that 10 million surplus doses of Pfizer-BioNtech be redistributed among the unhappy six, with several more well off and better inoculated members, including Germany and Malta, not receiving any. Others bristled at the Austrian proposal -- and Kurz's attitude. Germany has proposed redistributing some 3 million of those 10 million doses among countries, such as Bulgaria and Latvia, whose vaccination campaign is indeed behind but not to Austria. The balance would be shared among all 27 members.

Diplomats and officials say that it is not just about political point scoring -- Austria has vaccinated a greater proportion of its population than the EU average and many countries, including Germany and France, while others like Bulgaria and Latvia genuinely need help.

While there's still no solution, officials are trying to keep the spat from flaring up during the summit. The default option would be for all 10 million doses to be distributed pro-rata based on current arrangements, diplomats said, noting that either way, Kurz won't be getting any extra shots.

When the meeting begins, the leaders will debate the pandemic before moving on to other topics, such as Russia, Turkey and how to boost the international role of the euro. The premiers will declare that lockdowns and curbs on travel must continue, amid a flare up in coronavirus infections across the bloc, according to the latest draft of their joint communique seen by Bloomberg.

At the same time, they'll vow to begin preparations for a coordinated lifting of restrictions when the epidemiological situations allows it, the statement says. Crucially for tourism-dependent economies, leaders will give a nod for work to go ahead on digital passes, which will ease travel for those inoculated, recovered from the virus or who can show a recent negative test. The aim is to have the system up and running by June, just in time for this summer's tourist season.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw cold water on hopes for a quick deal on EU vaccination passports, telling lawmakers in Berlin on Thursday that it will take time to sort out the details.

At the virtual summit, "we will talk about the next steps for the development of a so-called green certificate which should be ready by summer," she said. "This is no easy task with 27 member states and will take a few more weeks."

While the technical issues could be worked out quickly, she said the bloc will have to "look very closely" at the rights that a vaccination passport would allow.

The main part of the discussion may revolve around new rules introduced on Wednesday by the European Commission that pave the way for tougher curbs on vaccine exports. While aghast with AstraZeneca's delivery delays, some countries are still reluctant to agree on measures that could potentially disrupt global supply chains. Meanwhile, a group of nations that had based their vaccine strategy on AstraZeneca's shots will seek a so-called corrective mechanism to make up for the shortfall by getting extra doses from an accelerated batch of vaccines from Pfizer. The discussion could turn bitter.

Published : March 26, 2021

By : Syndication Washington Post, Bloomberg · Nikos Chrysoloras, Alberto Nardelli