EU vaccine rollout shortcomings addressed by von der Leyen
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The bloc’s handling of its coronavirus vaccine programme has descended into chaos, after it emerged Italy and the European Commission, led by President Ursula von der Leyen, stopped a 250,000-dose shipment of the AstraZeneca jab from going to Australia. The row over the drug comes after AstraZeneca failed in its contractual commitment to the EU over the number of jabs given, leading the Italian government to refuse to export the new doses. Italy’s request to halt the export was given the all clear by the Commission, under a new control law that came into play at the end of January.
Among the other reasons Rome refused to export the jabs was because it deemed Australia as “not vulnerable” to the coronavirus, due to its low number of current COVID-19 cases.
Australia is due to begin rolling out the AstraZeneca vaccine among its citizens on Monday, but following Italy’s move Prime Minister Scott Morrison has asked the Commission to review its decision.
The rise in tensions could have potentially been avoided, however, if the ‘Inclusive Vaccine Alliance’ had successfully delivered on its ambitions to create a “successful” framework for manufacturing vaccines on European soil.
Just nine months ago, the Dutch Health Ministry announced the Netherlands would work in partnership with Germany, Italy and France on fast-tracking a vaccine to hand out to citizens.
The Ministry said the alliance’s main purpose was to accelerate the production of vaccine doses for the EU, as well as low-income countries across Africa.
In a statement full of promise, the Dutch government said the nations were “convinced that a successful result requires a joint strategy and investments”.
Officials said the venture may include the Commission in negotiations, and offered other EU member states the chance to come in and collaborate on the project.
It came as the 27 EU member states were embroiled in talks to “agree on a mandate for negotiations with pharmaceutical companies for advance contracts on doses of potential coronavirus vaccine candidates”, Bloomberg reported.
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The hope was this would allow the EU to not fall behind the likes of the US and China in rolling out the jab.
At the time in June, the US and China already secured vaccine deals with companies – if proven effective.
European health commissioner Stella Kyriakides added: “A joint approach toward industry is the best way to ensure fair and timely access to a vaccine for our citizens.
“An EU strategy for COVID-19 vaccines would define the exact needs and help maximise access to the vaccine when it becomes available.”
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But it would appear this alliance did not deliver on its aspirations, as so far it has only administered 7.6 jabs per 100 people, a huge gap when compared with rivals the UK (31.2 people) and the US (24.3).
The nations’ vow to help finance research into the vaccines also appeared unclear, particularly when compared with the likes of Britain and the US.
According to a report by scientific data company Airfinity, the UK spent £25 per person on early COVID-19 research, committing around £1.67billion to vaccines before knowing their effectiveness.
The US offered £7.9billion, at a rate of £24.02 per person, while the EU lagged behind again, spending just £3.51 per citizen, with an investment of £1.57billion.
Airfinity’s chief executive officer Rasmus Bech Hansen told BBC Radio 4 in February that this early investment from Washington and London was important.
He said: “In some ways, they’ve taken on much more risk, and that has really been critical in reaching this point — after all, we are getting quite a lot of vaccines at an unprecedented pace.”
More recently, the Australian Prime Minister said that while he understood Italy’s difficult position on withholding the vaccines, he wanted a review of how it has been handled.
Mr Morrison said: “In Italy, people are dying at the rate of 300-a-day.
“And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe.”
Italy has suffered during the pandemic, registering around three million cases of Covid, as well as nearly 100,000 deaths.
Australia, however, has reported no more than 1,000 deaths as a result of coronavirus, and 29,000 cases.
Simon Birmingham, Australia’s Finance Minister, admitted the world is “in uncharted territory” so claimed it was “unsurprising some countries would tear up the rule book”.
With Australia seemingly more understanding of Italy’s plight, media outlets inside the bloc have turned on the EU, and Rome, for its decision.
Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung claimed “Australia is angry with Italy’s vaccine blockade”, while Spain’s ABC daily added: “The relations between the European Commission and the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca could not be thornier.”
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