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4th Jul 2022

Von der Leyen on vaccines: 'We're tired of being the scapegoat'

  • EU Commission president said the bloc will reach its target to vaccinate 70 percent of its population by the end of summer (Photo: European Parliament)

"We are tired of being the scapegoat," EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday (8 March) as the EU executive continues to face pressure over the sluggish roll-out of vaccines in Europe.

Von der Leyen, in an interview with a group of journalists including EUobserver, criticised vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca for failing to deliver the jabs it had promised to EU countries.

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The commission president backed Italy's recent decision to block a shipment of AstraZeneca's vaccine to Australia, for the first time using a new EU rule on exports.

"If a company is not delivering, we cannot allow exports," she said, adding that AstraZeneca has delivered to Italy fewer than 10 percent of what was contracted for the first quarter.

Von der Leyen said AstraZeneca had not stockpiled doses before EU authorisation of their vaccine, and - despite what the company said before - the EU has singed its contract for vaccines a day before the firm signed with the UK.

"We are looking not at countries but at companies … AstraZeneca has to show first of all an improvement or a rise of deliveries before they can export AstraZeneca production from Europe," she said.

Von der Leyen on the other hand praised BioNTech/Pfizer, which, after a bumpy start, developed a "reliable, stable process" and increased production, while also being responsible for 95 percent of the export from Europe.

Von der Leyen warned that the export-ban triggered by Italy will not be a "one-off", but it depended on AstraZeneca.

"The company has to deliver. And this will create a trust that they would be honouring their contract and if they're honoring the contract, of course, the doors are open for exports," von der Leyen said.

The German commission president emphasised that without the unified EU vaccination strategy, "the small member states would have zero vaccines right now".

"Therefore the European approach is the right one. We are not willing anymore to be the scapegoat for other difficulties," she said.

Von der Leyen said "we all underestimated" what it meant to go from 0 into mass production of millions of doses and to have a stable production process.

The commission chief is working with companies the EU had contracted for the vaccine to prepare for producing vaccines against any Covid-19 virus variants.

The EU executive is working to ramp up production capacities against the variants, and will soon adopt speeding up regulatory approval for adapted vaccines.

'Resisting temptations'

Asked about the geopolitical aspect of buying Russian and Chinese vaccines - which have not been approved by the EU regulator so far - von der Leyen said the "vast majority of member states are committed to the European spirit, because they know that we are better off if we stick together and are resisting temptations to undermine the process".

Hungary has approved both the Chinese and Russian vaccines and Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been considering using Russia's Sputnik V vaccine too.

A senior official at the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on Sunday urged EU countries to refrain from granting national approvals for Sputnik V while the EU regulator reviewed its safety and effectiveness.

EMA has started the so-called "rolling review" of Sputnik V, but it still needs to apply for EU authorisation.

Von der Leyen said that Sputnik V still had to deliver the necessary data, "open their books, be transparent, show all the data, and prove that the minimum requirements have been met in clinical trials to make sure that this vaccine is effective and safe".

Regulators will also need to inspect production sites.

"Sputnik is not producing in Europe, therefore we will see if Sputnik is applying with EMA, and whether they will tell us about production sites they plan to use," she said.

She added that the EU wants clarity on the production process, as there are millions of doses announced to the world while the "vaccination rate of the Russian population is very low compared to other countries that are producing vaccines".

Travel certificates

On the planned travel-certificates, von der Leyen said that the point will be to prove that the person traveling is not infectious.

This could be done either with a vaccination or a negative PCR test or having antibodies after recovering from Covid-19. She argued that the certificate will not be discriminatory.

She also suggested that vaccines that are part of the certificate might have to be approved by an "acknowledged international authority", but added that this is still being discussed with member states.

Von der Leyen acknowledged there are many open questions - including whether jabs prevent infections - but said the commission wants to put in place the technical and legal processes for the summer.

"I want to avoid a situation in three or four months when a vast majority has been vaccinated that we have 27 different solutions in Europe: fragmented and uncoordinated," she said, adding that EU countries will also have to do their homework in setting up the EU-wide system.

Von der Leyen said the vaccination rates in Europe are rising, and that the EU will reach its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the adult population by the end of summer.

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Analysis

Von der Leyen's moment to step up her game

"It is the opportunity she has to seize now to set the course for the remainder of her mandate," said Georg Riekeles from the European Policy Centre.

Opinion

How industry watered-down new EU supply chain rules

The Commission fell hook, line, and sinker for the arguments of big business on the corporate due diligence directive — conflating rules and regulations with so-called 'red tape' and rebranding regulations as 'burdens' on business which should be scrapped.

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