A vaccine war has erupted between Britain and the European Union with Brussels demanding that tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses earmarked for Britain, and made by a British pharmaceutical company, be diverted to Europe to make up for a shortfall in promised deliveries.
The demand marks a sharp political turn in a dispute between the EU and drug company AstraZeneca, as well as underscoring the mounting risks of vaccine nationalism. It was triggered after the pharmaceutical giant announced it would have to cut vaccine doses scheduled for delivery to Europe before the end of March from 80 million to 31 million.
The reduction will add woes to an EU inoculation program that has gotten off to a sluggish and at times chaotic start, with only two doses being administered so far for every 100 Europeans, compared to seven in America and 11 in Britain.
Bureaucratic missteps and a shortage of vaccine doses have prompted frustration across the continent. Hungary is planning to break ranks with other EU countries to order supplies of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which has not been authorized by EU medicine regulators.
Brussels's health commissioner Stella Kyriakides midweek said that as AstraZeneca is blaming production challenges at factories in Europe for the shortfall on contracted doses, supplies manufactured by the drug company in Britain should be redirected to Europe. The British government’s order for doses predates the contract the EU signed with AstraZeneca by three months.
“We reject the logic of ‘first come, first served' — that may work at the neighborhood butchers but not in contracts,” she said Wednesday. After a meeting with AstraZeneca, Kyriakides said she regretted “the continued lack of clarity on the delivery schedule” and expects “the fast delivery of the quantity of vaccines that we reserved.”
AstraZeneca says it has outlined the “complexities of scaling up production” of the vaccine but will “continue our efforts to bring this vaccine to millions of Europeans at no profit during the pandemic.”
British ministers had until Thursday tried to stay out of the argument between the EU and the pharmaceutical giant, but the EU demand for the diversion of doses has prompted a political and media outcry in Britain, deepening the post-Brexit conflict.
British tabloid front pages expressed outrage. “WAIT YOUR TURN! SELFISH EU WANTS OUR VACCINES,” announced the Daily Express. Tabloid rival the Daily Mail headline said: “NO, EU CAN’T HAVE OUR JABS!”
British officials insist that Britain's vaccine order should not be impacted by the EU's troubles with deliveries.
“I think we need to make sure that the vaccine supply that has been bought and paid for, procured for those in the UK, is delivered,” Michael Gove, a senior minister told London’s LBC radio station. “Our priority has to be making sure that the people in our country who are vulnerable and who we have been targeted for vaccination, receive those jobs in those arms.” Gove said there can be no interruption to Britain’s inoculation program.
The deepening argument also has prompted threats from EU lawmakers to block exports of Pfizer’s vaccine from its production facility in Belgium destined for Britain. A senior German MEP raised the prospects of a “trade war” between Britain and the EU.
Peter Liese, a member of the European Parliament’s health committee, told Euronews that European citizens were being “treated as second class by a UK-based company.” He added: “the company and the UK better think twice.”
The risk of vaccine nationalism was highlighted Tuesday by the World Health Organization's director-general, but his focus was on the vaccine divide between rich and poor countries. “With every day that passes, the divide grows larger between the world's haves and have-nots,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in remarks at a WHO executive board meeting in Geneva.
But the dispute between Britain and the EU has underscored that bouts of vaccine nationalism can also break out between wealthy countries, too, which are desperate to get as many of their citizens vaccinated as soon as possible.
Britain’s inoculation program is off to a flying start. Britain has vaccinated about 13 percent of its adults, while the EU average is barely over two percent, and the gap is growing. British regulatory authorities were quicker in approving vaccines and were ahead in signing contacts with a variety of suppliers.
Logistical missteps and hidebound bureaucracy have marred the EU’s vaccine strategy, say critics, prompting public frustration with the pace of inoculations. Some of the problems have been country-specific but there are mounting doubts about the EU’s collective bloc approach to procurement and distribution of vaccines.
Brussels had hoped a vaccination program arranged under EU auspices would advertise the strength of a collective strategy and reduce the danger of vaccine rivalry between the 27 member states. But earlier this year one of the scientists who developed the Pfizer vaccine, Ugur Sahin, warned the rollout was “not looking rosy” in Europe and, aside from the sluggish start in several European states, he raised the possibility of a medium-term shortfall in stockpiles of the vaccine.
He questioned the reasoning behind the EU ordering just 300 million doses of the vaccine — enough for about a third of the bloc’s 450 million people — and declining to order more. “The process in Europe certainly didn't proceed as quickly and straightforwardly as with other countries,” Sahin told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine.
EU officials have cautioned that public expectations are in some ways too high and people need to be more patient, though they acknowledge people are yearning for an end to lockdowns and a return to their normal lives. But critics say the EU program has not been efficient.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been especially harsh, saying recently he was “not happy with the pace.” He told Hungarian radio “there were manufacturers whose products were available sooner in Canada, the UK.”
Orban added, “We’re unable to move faster with inoculating people not because Hungarian health care is incapable of carrying out mass vaccinations rapidly but because we have a shortage of vaccine supplies.”
Separately, it emerged Thursday that Germany is now advising against giving the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over the age of 65. Germany’s vaccine committee made the recommendation, saying it was not satisfied with data about the effectiveness of the vaccine for older people and not because of any safety worries.