A European Union panicked by citizen anger over the tardy roll-out of vaccines tried briefly to interdict British supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine only to back down within hours, following international condemnation, including from the World Health Organisation, writes MedicalBrief.
The EU early on 30 January 2021, abruptly reversed an attempt to restrict vaccine exports from the bloc into Britain via Northern Ireland, the latest stumble in the continent’s faltering vaccine rollout, reports The New York Times.
The report says a day earlier, the bloc had come under harsh criticism from Britain, Ireland and the World Health Organisation when it announced plans to use emergency measures under the Brexit deal to block COVID-19 vaccines from being shipped across the Irish border into Britain.
The European Commission announced the restrictions without consulting member states or Britain, a former member – unusually aggressive behaviour that is not typical of the bloc, said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
“There’s clearly panic at the highest levels of the Commission, and the issue of the Northern Ireland agreement has been swept up in this bigger issue of the EU’s poor vaccine performance,” he said.
The NYT reports that the drama unfolded just as the bloc’s plan to vaccinate 70% of its adult population by the summer was unravelling. Already slow in ordering and delivering the vaccines, the EU was hit with a devastating blow when AstraZeneca announced that it would slash vaccine deliveries because of production problems.
The initial EU plan to limit vaccine exports to non-EU countries brought cries of outrage from both the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU, and Northern Ireland, a part of the UK. Both sides are committed to not recreating any land border between the two parts of the island of Ireland.
The report says Britons who favored Brexit point to their country’s more rapid vaccination rollout as a benefit of leaving the bloc and its slower, collective processes. Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative member of British Parliament who initially opposed Brexit but voted reluctantly for the deal, is quoted in The NYT as saying that the signals from the vaccine dispute were a cause for concern.
The report says European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the Commission were quick to back down, insisting that a mistake had been made and that any vaccine export controls would ensure that the Brexit agreement, which gave assurances that there would be no new border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland, would be “unaffected.” That protocol essentially treats Northern Ireland as part of the EU’s regulatory space.
But, the report says, it was clear that the move to bring in export controls was aimed at preventing any vaccine doses produced within the EU from being sent into Britain across the open border on the island of Ireland.
The British took it as an aggressive act. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called von der Leyen and said afterward that he had “expressed his grave concern about the potential impact.”
The report say the World Health Organisation joined in the criticism of the EU export controls, saying that such measures risked prolonging the pandemic. Its director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that “vaccine nationalism” could lead to a “protracted recovery.” Mariangela Simao, the assistant director-general for access to medicines, called the move part of a “very worrying trend.”
The report says the bloc still intends to introduce export controls that could prevent any vaccines made in the EU from being sent to non-EU countries, but without involving Northern Ireland, which in any event gets its vaccines from Britain. Von der Leyen, who had previously left most of the vaccine dispute to her commissioners, said last week that the bloc would introduce a temporary export-control mechanism to block exports of vaccines made in the EU – a measure clearly aimed at AstraZeneca, which also manufactures in Belgium.
Approval to even use the AstraZeneca vaccine in the EU came only on Friday. So, The NYT report says, the company could hardly be blamed for the existing shortfalls in vaccinations stemming from earlier Commission decisions to order in bulk for the whole bloc, which drove down the price of vaccines but delayed orders and deliveries.
Nor did it help bloc unity when first the German government and then President Emmanuel Macron of France cast doubt on whether the AstraZeneca vaccine was effective for people over age 65 – contradicting what the European Medicines Agency had said when it approved the vaccine for all adults.
The report says for the German magazine Der Spiegel, no fan of von der Leyen, the mishandling of the vaccine rollout is her responsibility. “Europe is facing a vaccine disaster,” the magazine wrote, which “might ultimately turn out to be the greatest disaster of her entire political career.”
Von der Leyen’s decision to trigger Article 16 of the Brexit treatyʼs Northern Irish protocol, achieved the once unimaginable feat of uniting an unimpressed Michel Barnier, Irish prime minister Micheál Martin and Boris Johnson against her. Von der Leyen may have ordered a U-turn and blamed the crisis on “an oversight”, but, The Daily Telegraph reports, the damage was done.
It should have been very different. Brussels had planned for the first AstraZeneca jabs to be rolled out across the bloc once the European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine on Friday. The European Commission, which negotiated the supplies on behalf of the 27 member states, would use the delivery as a symbol of the benefits of EU unity. The inconvenient fact that the EUʼs vaccination roll-out was lagging far behind Brexit Britain would soon be forgotten in a flood of up to 400m jabs; enough to vaccinate about half of all EU citizens.
The report says the day couldnʼt come soon enough for the EUʼs heads of state and government, who had decided not to use the emergency authorisation procedures Britain used to fast-track the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Commissioners in Brussels sneered that this was a safer, more responsible route than that taken by Boris Johnson.
Many EU governments had chosen not to buy doses of rival vaccines, preferring to wait for the cheaper and easier to store jab from the British/Swedish company. The Telegraph reports that the slower pace was, however, exacting a political price on the blocʼs national leaders. Polls in France showed Marine Le Pen trailing Emmanuel Macron by just 48 to 52 in second round voting intentions for next yearʼs presidential elections. While the UK has distributed 11.86 jab doses per 100 people, France, where anti-vax beliefs have taken root, has only managed 2.08. European newspapers were reporting that Johnsonʼs vaccine gamble had paid off, which they said was a source of great frustration to the French.
The German government was also facing questions about why it was lagging so far behind the UK, US and Israel. The strain was showing elsewhere in Europe as well. The normally docile Dutch erupted into days of rioting, their worst in 40 years. The Italian government was tearing itself apart over the handling of the second coronavirus wave.
The Telegraph reports that the pressure was on the European Commission to deliver, which explains the furious reaction after AstraZeneca broke the news that there would be a shortfall in the supply. The company would only be able to deliver a quarter of the jabs promised in the first quarter of the year, it said. There would be about 75m vaccines missing because of production problems at its Belgian plant. Von der Leyen was determined that the member states would not point the finger of blame for the delays at her commission and so the decision was made to launch a full frontal, and unprecedented, attack on AstraZeneca.
The commission, which prides itself on its legal expertise and respect for the rule of law, turned the screws on AstraZeneca, accusing it of breaching its contract with Brussels. Von der Leyen gave Pascal Soriot, the CEO of AstraZeneca, a dressing down in a morning phone call.
The report says it was the first of three grillings for the boss, who was summoned to further two video conference meetings with the EU and national officials later that day. Then Stella Kyriakides, the European commissioner for health and food safety, dropped a bombshell. Brussels would introduce an “export transparency mechanism” by the end of the week, Kyriakides said. Cyprusʼs EU commissioner said that manufacturers in the EU would have to ask Brussels for permission before exporting vaccines out of the bloc.
The Telegraph report says the threat of an EU export ban was clear. Britain, less than a month out of the Brexit transition period and expecting almost 3.5m vaccines from Pfizerʼs Belgian plant, was in the firing line. It was the first of many signals that, as far as the commission was concerned, British public opinion of Brussels simply no longer mattered.
But, the report says, AstraZenecaʼs CEO hit back. There was no contractual obligation to supply the vaccines beyond an obligation on the company to make “best reasonable efforts” to provide it, he said. The companyʼs two production plants in Britain could help with the EU supply but, under the terms of the supply contract with the UK, only after a British order of 100m jabs had been supplied. An infuriated Brussels hit back hard. It demanded that AstraZeneca divert supplies of millions of UK-manufactured vaccines to the bloc and accused Soriot of breaching confidentiality by revealing details of the contract.
Kyriakides said the firm had “contractual, societal and moral obligations” to use all its facilities to make up the shortfall, and that there was “no hierarchy of factories”. MEPs began to talk of a vaccine trade war unless the pharma company caved to the demands.
Meanwhile, the report says, Johnson was looking like the only adult in the room. On 28 January, Belgian authorities, acting on a European Commission request, raided AstraZenecaʼs plant in the French-speaking region in Wallonia. The reason was to see if the companyʼs explanation of production problems was genuine but another motivation was to keep the pressure on the company.
Having secured AstraZenecaʼs permission to release a redacted version of its contract with the EU, von der Leyen had a salvo planned for 29 January. After the contract was released, the commission pointed to clauses it claimed supported its arguments. In one, AstraZeneca appeared to confirm that no other agreement would interfere with its supplies. Another clause said that, for the purposes of the deal, the two UK factories should be considered part of the EU. But eyebrows were raised as von der Leyen had, that very day, said there were no “best endeavours” clauses in the contract.
The Telegraph reports that the published deal, which in another sign the wheels were coming off, was accidentally released unredacted. It had those clauses. She either told an intentional lie to 447m people or she didn’t know what was in her own contract, Germanyʼs Bild Zeitung said. As EU officials demanded Britain publish its contract with the pharma company, there was growing disquiet among some member states the commission was going too far.
But despite the warnings of her own trade experts over the triggering of Article 16, von der Leyen was set on imposing the hard vaccine border on the island of Ireland. The report says among the voices arguing against the move was Sabine Weyand, the EUʼs top official on trade and former deputy Brexit negotiator. She was the woman who designed the Irish border backstop during the Brexit talks, which was ultimately ditched in favour of a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea.
In an astonishing gaffe, von der Leyen only informed Ireland she was triggering one of the most sensitive clauses in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement after the announcement. She also did not give notice to Britain about the move, which was meant to prevent Northern Ireland becoming a backdoor entry of vaccine supplies to the UK.
The Telegraph report makes the point that considering that the European Commission had spent the previous four years preaching the importance of open borders and peace on the island of Ireland, as well as criticising any suggestion from Britain of using the clause, it was an astonishing move.
It wasnʼt long before both the Irish and British prime ministers were on the phone to von der Leyen, both urging a change of tack. So it was that at 11.45pm local time, about eight hours after the announcement, a statement was released saying that Article 16, the so- called safeguard clause, would not be triggered after all.
According to the report, what von der Leyen planned as a show of strength and a reassertion of control had demonstrated anything but. The European press was unforgiving, describing it as the “Brexit own goal” and potentially von der Leyenʼs greatest failure.
Full report in The New York Times (Restricted access)
Full report in The Daily Telegraph (Restricted access)