Brussels gives vaccine strategy an injection – POLITICO



The European Commission on Wednesday moved to give its slow-rolling vaccine strategy a booster shot. 

Battered after weeks of criticism over production delays and other missteps, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out her long-term vaccine promises. She vowed to speed up the approval of vaccines to fight new coronavirus variants and expand genomic sequencing of those variants. She pledged to look into an EU-wide emergency authorization process to more swiftly approve other vaccines. She talked about a new “clinical trial network” and said the EU would buy more vaccines overall through the bloc’s joint procurement program. 

But what von der Leyen could not — and did not — promise was to immediately make more vaccines available to citizens whom she admitted were rightly frustrated that other countries like the U.K. and Israel have raced ahead. 

“I fully understand that people are impatient to get this underway,” von der Leyen told reporters during a more than hour-long news conference. “It is really frustrating that they’re having to wait.” 

Still, von der Leyen reiterated her defense of the Commission’s vaccine program and especially its success in keeping the 27 EU countries working together. “All things considered, we are proud of the fact that we stuck together, and we’re going to continue to stick together.”

Wednesday’s news conference — technically a read-out of the weekly meeting of the College of Commissioners — marked a rare visit by von der Leyen to the Commission press room, where daily briefings have been held by videoconference for nearly a year now because of the pandemic. Flanked by two of her top lieutenants — Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton — von der Leyen fielded questions for more than an hour, mainly on the EU’s vaccine program, but also on efforts to deliver vaccines to developing countries and related issues like border control.  

Von der Leyen’s appearance at the podium was an unmistakable effort to portray the Commission as fully in control of the pandemic response, and the president in particular as taking a proactive, hands-on leadership role — a message intended not only for citizens but also for national EU leaders who will convene by videoconference next week to discuss the health crisis.  

To further reinforce the point, von der Leyen sent her chief of staff, Bjoern Seibert, to brief EU ambassadors on Wednesday as they prepared for the leaders’ meeting. It was at least the second time in recent weeks that Seibert personally attended the ambassadors’ meeting in the ongoing effort to reassure capitals that the vaccine effort is fully under control. 

EU diplomats had little time before the meeting to look over the initiative von der Leyen rolled out Wednesday — the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, or HERA, Incubator. So instead they focused their talks largely on concerns that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could be less than 60 percent effective against the South African coronavirus variant, as well as continued supply issues from the Anglo-Swedish producer, according to one EU diplomat. Another two diplomats said that AstraZeneca would not provide a delivery schedule for the second quarter of the year. EU heads of state are expected to discuss the proposal next week.

Von der Leyen also used the news conference to raise some sharp questions about Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, which some EU countries, including the Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovakia, have been talking about using on a national basis. Hungary has already done so.

Von der Leyen noted, with apparent annoyance, that she read news accounts suggesting Russia was seeking regulatory approval for its vaccine from the European Medicines Agency, which the president said was not the case. She also said the Kremlin should explain why it is offering to sell doses abroad, but not swiftly vaccinating actual Russians.   

“Overall, I must say we still wonder why Russia is offering theoretically millions and millions of doses while not sufficiently progressing in vaccinating their own people,” von der Leyen said. “This is also a question that I think should be answered.”

Her rebuke offered a stark contrast with the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who was recently chided for doling out unsolicited praise for the Russian vaccine during a recent Moscow visit.

More infections, more variants, more funding

While the EU’s initiatives presented Wednesday will not instantly speed up the pace of injections, von der Leyen, Breton and Kyriakides made a clear show of confidence, repeatedly rattling off relevant statistics and describing efforts to increase production and hold manufacturers accountable. 

Von der Leyen, for instance, gave a run-down of how 33 million vaccines have been delivered so far, noting that 22 million have received a first dose and 7 million have received a second. “We must, and we shall, accelerate vaccination in the weeks and months to come,” she said. 

But she also conceded that there will be more cases in coming weeks and months, and a continuing threat from new variants.  

“There are going to be more infections, and that will mean more variants and these variants could be more resistant to existing vaccines,” she said. “Looking at the evolving situation, we just know how much time and structures are of the essence.”

Still, Breton stressed that there were positive developments, pointing out that AstraZeneca had been able to yield 50 percent more vaccines from its production sites. 

“Of course, you could count on me,” he said. “I am behind them on a daily basis to make sure that they deliver. The good news is that I see a lot of progresses.”

In a published communication of its initiatives, the Commission wrote that it would mobilize “all necessary funding” to buy more vaccines, but von der Leyen dodged a question about how much more money would be needed and where it would come from. 

“For the companies, it’s more important that we guarantee to take a certain amount of doses than the upfront payment,” von der Leyen said, pointing out the Emergency Support Instrument has allowed the Commission to put a down payment on the vaccines, while EU countries place the orders and pay per dose. “Compared to the huge economic damage this virus causes, a heavy investment is always justified.”

Von der Leyen did not offer clarity on how an EU-wide emergency authorization — the tool the U.K. used back in December to approve the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine weeks ahead of its European neighbors — would work or how much it would speed up the vaccine approvals process.

Thinking ahead

Overall, the plans appear to be another building block in the Commission’s larger vision to create a European Health Union, which would grant Brussels far more legal authority to respond in future emergencies. 

The initiatives include the HERA Incubator proposal — a public-private partnership that will do everything from assessing which vaccines to fund, to standardizing genomic sequencing across the bloc, to establishing a network of production sites. It’s a first step in consolidating emergency health powers in Brussels. A proposal for a formal agency like the U.S.’s BARDA will come at the end of the year. 

German MEP Tiemo Wölken from the Socialists & Democrats said he was happy to see plans for better cooperation, but surprised some of these proposals “are only being proposed now.” He also took issue with the Commission’s idea to create a voluntary licensing mechanism That Would Allow companies to maintain their intellectual property rights while sharing that information so other producers can start making the vaccines.  

“It is naive to believe that pharmaceutical companies do not act according to business interest,” Wölken wrote in a statement. “In this crisis situation, however, the common good must come first.”

“It would be useful if this helps getting more vaccines on a shorter notice,” one EU diplomat said. “But it should not just serve as a face-saving exercise for von der Leyen.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.

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