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4th Mar 2021

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I love the EU - but the vaccine strategy is a fiasco

  • I love the EU, no doubt about that - but that doesn't mean that we have to close our eyes when things go wrong (Photo: European Parliament)

They say love makes blind. But in politics that is not and shóuld not be the case.

I love the EU, no doubt about that. I think that in these troubled times, European integration is the only sensible way forward for our continent.

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But that doesn't mean that we have to close our eyes when things go wrong. It's our duty to be the most vocal critic, especially when Europe falls short of its potential, and of our expectations.

And that's exactly what is happening right now, with the EU vaccine strategy… a fiasco.

The inconvenient truth behind the vaccine fiasco in the EU

After nearly two months, the roll out of vaccines is dramatically low in Europe.

On average, not more than four percent of European citizens received a first dose. And in most countries, vaccination nearly came to a halt.

In my own region, Flanders, centres are finally ready… and closed again, because vaccine deliveries are insufficient.

This is in stark contrast with our production capacity of vaccines.

Europe is the world leader in vaccine production. More than 75 percent of all vaccines are produced in Europe, as are the majority of the nearly 200 million Covid vaccines that have already been produced.

Nevertheless, there is a crucial lack of supply in every European member state. Meanwhile in the United States, nearly 10 percent of the population received a first dose. In Britain it's 20 percent.

So what is going wrong?

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is basically saying 'we did nothing wrong, but were only a little bit too optimistic about our capacity to produce in Europe'.

But that's not what the facts are telling us, as we produce the vast majority of these vaccines… just to export them to other countries.

Weak contracts

How did this happen? Well, in my opinion, the answer lies in the contracts Europe negotiated with the pharmaceutical companies.

These contracts are extremely unbalanced. They are precise on pricing and liabilities but weak and vague on supply and on timing, and offer escape routes to the contractual obligations of the pharmaceutical companies involved.

The effect of these provisions is really devastating.

Only the amount of doses that, based on the contractual obligations of the companies is nót subject to be exported to countries like the UK, US, Israel, Canada or others, is today available for the vaccination of EU citizens, thereby prolonging the covid pandemic on the European continent.

And the measures meanwhile taken by the European Commission are mostly symbolic, insufficient and to some extent even counterproductive.

The use, for example, of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol has been a diplomatic disaster, destroyed in a few seconds the seriousness of the negotiations with the UK, conducted by Michel Barnier for more than three years.

The introduction of a new export authorisation for Covid vaccines is only an unnecessary burden to the process and certainly doesn't speed up the vaccination of our European citizens.

The appointment of commissioner for industry Thierry Breton to further extend the vaccine production capacity in Europe is certainly a sensible move.

Yet it is not so much the capacity in Europe that constitutes the problem, but the allocation of the produced doses.

Ultimately, what is needed is a radical change in our strategy. In the short term, we need to use the power of the European Union to renegotiate the ill-conceived contracts with the pharmaceutical industry.

Binding commitments and mandatory timelines and volumes must replace the indicative goals that are foreseen today. Export clauses, as apparently the UK has in its contracts, respecting these commitments and timelines, need to be introduced.

And for the upcoming authorisations of vaccines from, for example, Johnson&Johnson and CureVac, that the European Medicines Agency must follow a fast-track procedure, putting aside the question of liabilities towards third parties.

And in the longer term, a real health union must be established with a real budget so that we can match the US in supporting the development and production of new medicines and treatments by the pharmaceutical industry.

Part of this union must also be a dedicated agency responsible for the European-wide acquisition of medicines to avoid the errors made during this pandemic. And finally, also, the question of patent rights needs to be openly discussed and addressed.

Because we cannot do without the European Union in this, as some might conclude from this fiasco.

As often, the European Union is not the problem, but the solid basis for the solution.

Author bio

Guy Verfhofstadt is an MEP with the liberal Renew Europe group, and a former prime minister of Belgium.

Disclaimer

This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.

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