An under-fire European Union is facing daunting setbacks to its sweeping coronavirus inoculation plans. While production glitches have plagued two vaccines, a shortfall in deliveries from AstraZeneca has deepened a dispute with the UK, whose inoculation programme is far outpacing Europe's.
News that British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca will only deliver around a quarter of the 100 million doses it allegedly pledged for the first three months of the year due to a production glitch reportedly at a hub in Belgium had member-states scrambling to reassess the situation.
As all three of the European Union’s vaccine suppliers, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, have failed to live up to promises, a number of the bloc’s member states have been experiencing vaccine rollout setbacks.
As of 29 January, no more than at least 2 percent of the EU’s population had received a first dose of the COVID-19 jab.
Both France and Italy were informed at the end of the week to expect fewer jabs than anticipated from US vaccine supplier Moderna. The latter will cut the vaccine deliveries by 20 percent to Italy by early February, while France is expecting 25 percent fewer doses than originally scheduled, according to its health ministry.
France’s Health Ministry was quoted as saying only a million first doses would be administered in February, as compared to 1.4 million in January.
First-dose vaccination is being slowed or suspended altogether in the Paris area, northern Hauts de France and eastern Burgundy regions for February, ostensibly to ensure supplies are sufficient for second doses in the month. The inoculation slowdown has delayed vaccines reaching priority groups, such as healthcare workers and over-75s who do not reside in care homes.
By the end of February, only 2.4 million people will have had their first doses, according to French Health Minister Olivier Veran.
While initially off to a promising start, Italy’s jabs have similarly slowed, with only 70,000 doses administered daily.
“We had hoped to vaccinate 40-45 million people by the autumn but now we have no idea,” The Times quoted a source at the government’s vaccine agency as saying.
The country was forced to deal with a 29 percent cut in deliveries from Pfizer last week. These developments were further compounded by news that Italy’s secondary supplier, Moderna, would also fail to provide enough vaccines on schedule. Italy’s vaccine tsar Domenico Arcuri revealed that the country had received 300,000 fewer doses than planned.
“Our amazement, concern and discomfort is increasing as our forecasts change every day. It’s very hard to start a mass vaccination campaign if you don’t have vaccines, he added.
Italy’s first shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be slashed from eight million to 3.4 million doses.
Amid the shortfalls, Madrid and the northern region of Cantabria, which received 50 percent of the doses anticipated this week, have stopped issuing first doses to ensure there are enough supplies for second shots.
“We have had to suspend new first doses for at least the next two weeks due to lack of vaccine,” said Ignacio Aguado, deputy head of the Madrid region.
The region’s reserve supplies are dwindling fast, with officials warning that “the refrigerators will be empty” shortly, as other areas claimed to have received only half the planned shipments.
While on paper Germany has more doses of the vaccine per capita than any other EU member state, in part due to two deals struck unilaterally with Pfizer and CureVac, delays in the production of the Pfizer vaccine have hampered progress over the past fortnight.
About 100,000 doses are reportedly administered daily, with at least one dose received by 2.7 percent of its population. Germany warned of shortages for at least another “ten hard weeks”. The country had vowed to offer vaccinations to all care home residents by the middle of February and to all adults by 21 September.
Jens Spahn, the country’s health minister, was quoted as saying:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are living in and with the greatest crisis since the Second World War.”
Spahn anticipated Germany would receive 12 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and a further three million from Astrazeneca before April.
Meanwhile, Hungary broke ranks to approve the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, while also becoming the first EU country to authorise the Sinopharm vaccine from China.
UK Vaccine Rollout Sprint
Meanwhile, the UK’s coronavirus immunisation programme is said to be proceeding at five times the rate of Brussels’ efforts to immunise the population of its 27 EU member states, with questions raised about European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s management.
Von der Leyen had insisted on centralised procurement, procrastinating over placing orders with AstraZeneca for three months as Britain secured 100 million doses of the jab, while also pre-ordering 17 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, anticipated to be delivered in the spring.
We have just authorised the @AstraZeneca vaccine on the EU market following a positive assessment by @EMA_News— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) January 29, 2021
I expect the company to deliver the 400 million doses as agreed. We will keep on doing all we can to secure vaccines for Europeans, our neighbours & partners worldwide
The bloc also failed to secure an advance order from US-based Novavax company, whose jab has demonstrated an 89.3-percent efficacy. In November, Britain became the first country in the world to spearhead a phase 3 trial for the Novavax vaccine candidate.
After AstraZeneca revealed last week the impending shortfall in deliveries, anticipated to be around 60 percent in the first quarter of 2021, a row erupted between Britain and the EU over whether AstraZeneca was breaking its vaccine delivery commitments to the European bloc.
On Friday, the European Commission moved to approve a plan intended to introduce export controls, affecting some 100 countries, including the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, on coronavirus vaccines. This would enable individual member states to decide whether to allow the export of vaccines produced in the territory.
In what was branded by Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster as an "incredible act of hostility", the EU also suspended terms of the Brexit deal that enabled goods to flow across the Northern Irish border.
Brussels had argued the border could be used as a back door to distribute vaccines to the rest of the UK.
The EU later reversed its decision to temporarily override part of the Brexit deal, as the European Commission underscored it will ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol is "unaffected".
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had expressed "grave concerns" about the plan in a phone call with the commission's president, Ursula von der Leyen.
‘Political Gamble’ at Citizens’ Expense
The current scandal around the vaccines reflects the fact that the UK negotiated a bad ‘exit deal’ with the EU, according to Christian Schweiger, Visiting Professor at the Chair for Comparative European Governance Systems in the Institute for Political Science at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany.
After Brexit, the UK is now being treated as an associated external trading partner by Brussels, Schweiger believes.
The EU is visibly annoyed by the fact that the UK fast-tracked the domestic license to obtain vaccines quicker than the bloc, whose members, such as Germany, now face now face vaccination shortages.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been forced to move fast, as the struggling, overwhelmed and underfunded British NHS has been pushed almost to the brink of collapse by the pandemic, says Schweiger, with swift mass immunization the only option out of the crisis.
“If this will work remains to be seen. In any case the EU Commission under von der Leyen is trying to distract from its own mismanagement in ordering vaccinations too late and in insufficient quantities. It has become a political gamble at the expense of citizens,” adds the professor.