EU divided over vaccine alliance

2021-03-03 12:04:58

A healthcare worker hands over doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a doctor at Messe Wien Congress Center, which has been set up as coronavirus disease vaccination centre, in Vienna, Austria, Feb 7, 2021. [Photo/Agencies] Bloc's joint jab procurement program now under criticism for being too slow Concern over the European Union's slow-moving COVID-19 vaccination strategy has sparked division on how to tackle the pandemic. It has emerged that a planned "vaccine alliance" between Austria, Denmark and Israel threatens to undermine the European Commission's coordinated purchasing effort, with plans said to already be at an "advanced stage" between the three nations. A report in the Financial Times said Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen will this week travel to Israel, which is not in the EU, to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for discussions on a new "joint approach". Netanyahu said in public remarks on Monday that the leaders will also talk about the idea of "an international corporation for manufacturing vaccines", Reuters reported. Kurz told German newspaper Bild that the European Medicines Agency, known as the EMA, is "too slow" to approve vaccines. He said: "We should no longer be dependent only on the EU for the production of second-generation vaccines." The FT said "at the core of discussions" were plans "to construct in-country production facilities for mRNA vaccines", with producers Pfizer and Moderna. It comes as EU member state Slovakia announced it has acquired 2 million doses of the Russian produced Sputnik V vaccine, which has not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency, also known as EMA. Another EU member, Hungary, has already begun rolling out jabs produced by Russia and China, and the Czech Republic said on Sunday it would approve use of the Russian jab. Poland's President Andrezej Duda announced on Monday that he would buy vaccines from China. The European Commission's joint vaccine procurement program for member states has been criticized for being too slow to agree deals with manufacturers, with reports citing production problems and supply chain issues. During one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet meetings last month, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz reportedly strongly criticized the European Commission's combined vaccination effort. Anxiety around the vaccine rollout is escalating in Germany, which has administered only 6.2 million doses of the jab, compared with 75.2 million in the United States and 21 million in the United Kingdom. Germany's initial response to the pandemic last year was widely praised as it went into lockdown early, quickly controlled the virus with contact tracing and had one of the lowest infection rates in Europe. But a second wave in the winter hit much harder. The FT noted that with 2.3 million of the nation's acquired shots still sitting unused, "criticism has shifted to the German authorities and their seeming inability to administer all the shots they have". Officials say the unused shots are being held back for the required second dose, but critics say there is vaccine hesitancy, and point to the fact that the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot is restricted to under-65s, based on clinical data about its efficacy. The nation's digital platform for booking vaccine appointments has been severely criticized as "inflexible", adding to frustrations. The paper quoted Ulrich Weigeldt, head of the German Association of General Practitioners, who said: "It was bad enough that the EU ordered too little vaccine, too late, but now we have all these jabs being stockpiled, unused. It's a scandal." France on Monday lifted restrictions on use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after additional clinical data proved its efficacy among people aged over 65. The FT said the policy shift would likely mean other EU countries, such as Italy, Spain and Germany, "will abandon age limits on the vaccine".