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27th May 2022

Frustration at EU summit on slow vaccination

  • European Council president Charles Michel and national leaders were joined by US president Joe Biden for an around 30 minute discussion (Photo: Council of the European Union)

A sluggish start to the vaccine roll-out has cast a long shadow on the online meeting of EU leaders, who on Thursday (25 March) discussed the bloc's vaccine strategy.

There has been a muted backing for the EU Commission's plans to tighten export rules, as the bloc wants to make sure pharmaceutical companies, particularly AstraZeneca, deliver on their EU contracts before exporting.

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Leaders also resisted Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz's efforts to redistribute vaccines at the summit, which Kurz argued had been unevenly spread among member states.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned that the epidemiological situation on the continent is a "great concern", as a third wave of infections has hit Europe due to a Covid-19 variant.

Von der Leyen said, despite the bumpy start to the inoculation, the first effects of the vaccination are seen: mortality increases remain lower than the spread of the virus with most over 80-year olds vaccinated.

"Vaccination finally progressing steadily," she said, claiming that the EU is "on track" to reach the goal to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population by the summer.

She said 88 million Covid-19 have been deliver to the EU so far and 62 million have been administered. In Europe, 18.2 million people are fully vaccinated, meaning 4.1 percent of people have received two jabs.

In the second quarter, an increased number of vaccines are expected from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, and Johnson and Johsnon will start rolling out its vaccine which only requires one jab, von der Leyen said.

However, AstraZeneca only promised to deliver 70 million doses in the second quarter instead of 180 million contracted.

The Swedish-British company has already fell behind in the first quarter, and the commission has said it would have to honour its European contract before it can export to third countries, such as the UK.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said after the meeting that the UK and EU will sort out their issues over vaccines by Saturday. This comes after escalating tensions between London and Brussels over vaccines.

AstraZeneca's sluggish roll-out has also meant that EU countries that have chosen that vaccine fell behind in vaccination.

The EU signed framework agreements with the pharmaceutical companies but it is the member states that contract the firms for the specific amount of jabs they want.

Redistribution

Austria's Kurz has led a campaign with counterparts from five central and eastern European nations to correct at the EU summit what they say is an uneven distribution.

Leaders pushed back against Kurz's lobbying to make a reference in the summit conclusions to the failures of the vaccine strategy, instead leaders made a reference for the need to accelerate deliveries.

There was also a little appetite to haggle over an expected 10 million batch of BioNtech/Pfizer doses at the summit, while Austria's vaccine rollout is going relatively well.

"At this moment it is difficult to conclude that Austria has an issue now," Rutte said after the meeting.

He added that he is "very much open" to find a way to help Croatia, Bulgaria, and Latvia, which have struggled with their roll-out due to their reliance on AstraZeneca vaccines.

In parallel, commission and member state officials have been in talks over the allocation of the upcoming batch of 10 million doses with the aim of narrowing the vaccine gap between EU countries in the so-called steering board that dealt with the vaccine strategy.

Leaders now called EU ambassadors to make a decision on those doses.

EU leaders also discussed the tightening of vaccine exports, which the commission proposed earlier this week, with several leaders urging caution, fearing it would upset global supply chains and saying it has to be a "last resort".

The EU is the region that exports the most vaccines worldwide, having exported 77 million doses since December, von der Leyen said.

EU sharpens vaccine export tool, amid third wave

The UK seems to be targeted as it has received 10m vaccines since January from the EU but has not exported back. Several EU countries are cautious about the tighter curbs fearing it could harm global supply chains.

Vaccine export 'ban' row heats up ahead of EU summit

"This is not about banning vaccine exports, this is about making sure that companies deliver on their commitments to the member states and the EU that are inscribed in contracts," commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.

First glimpse of new EU 'vaccine certificate' for summer

The European Commission has presented a common approach to vaccine certificates to facilitate travel. All EU-wide approved vaccines will be accepted for this document, but member states can decide to accept other vaccines too.

Merkel and party chief clash over Covid-19 measures

Chancellor Angela Merkel said if German regions do not impose stricter measures, she would have to think about overriding state regulations "in the very foreseeable future". A sensitive post-war issue in the federal republic.

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