Oxford, we have a problem. A serious problem. The covid vaccine developed by the prestigious British university and manufactured by the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has become a headache for the European Union. The AstraZeneca production fiasco has disrupted the vaccination schedules of most European health authorities. But the impact of repeated delays in the distribution of AstraZeneca’s drug and the doubts raised about its side effects have far more dangerous ramifications than the mere postponement of a puncture. The debacle threatens to frustrate the EU’s strategy to overcome the health and economic crisis, based on a rapid mass vaccination campaign to achieve a recovery of the service sector and almost normal mobility from June.
The specter of a second black spring runs through Europe and nervousness spreads among European governments that, a year after the Great Seclusion last spring, hoped to offer the population a signal of health, social and economic relief. The reality is harsher than expected and all the health and economic objectives of the European Commission are in the air after the stumbling of the vaccination campaigns in the first quarter and the risk of further mishaps in the second.
“The European Commission gambles it during the four weeks of April”, warns the Socialist MEP Nicolás González Casares, a member of the Parliament’s Industry committee, one of those in charge of monitoring the vaccine strategy. “If the distribution of doses is not accelerated at the beginning of the second quarter, the Commission will face an explosive political situation, with a wave of infections on the rise, an increasingly fed up population and governments that will transfer responsibility for the disaster to Brussels”, predicts González.
The European Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, does not hide her disappointment with the Anglo-Swedish laboratory. “With AstraZeneca there have been continuous problems,” Kyriakides lamented last Wednesday during a meeting with EL PAÍS and a European media group. “With Pfizer-BioNTech, on the other hand, at the beginning we had difficulties, but they managed to increase their production capacity and have been much more reliable,” added the curator.
Tension is chewing in the community capital and the first cracks in the common strategy have appeared between the group of countries, with Austria as the leader, who had opted for the AstraZeneca vaccine and had barely bought doses of BioNTech. The governments of Austria and company are demanding a redistribution of the acquired doses, a request categorically rejected by the rest.
The clash between the community partners threatens to sour the European summit that takes place this Thursday and Friday. The meeting was intended to rethink the geostrategic future of the EU (especially in relation to Russia and Turkey), but diplomatic sources acknowledge that it is on its way to becoming a crisis cabinet to try to save vaccination campaigns.
Brussels relied on the distribution of some 160 million doses during the first quarter, that is, enough to inject the two necessary doses to 22% of the European adult population. And he expected an avalanche of doses in the second quarter, of up to 380 million, which would raise the vaccination rate above 60%.
Immunization would have been accompanied by a relaxation of movement restrictions and confinement measures. And this year it would have led to a rebound in economic growth during the first quarter (already ruled out) and a powerful take-off during the second.
But the dream of a speedy recovery has faded and the EU reaches the end of the first quarter with less than 70 million doses distributed (compared to 154 million in the US) and only 4.2% of the population with both. injected doses of any of the vaccines licensed so far (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen). During the first half, AstraZeneca plans to deliver 100 million doses in the EU, that is, 170 million less than promised. A total of 85 million fewer people than expected (each vaccine requires two doses).
The economic rebound forecast by the Commission for the second quarter is also in danger with the rebound in infections in much of Europe and the return of confinements in countries such as France or Italy. From this Saturday, 21 million people, a third of the French population, will be subject to confinement measures for at least four weeks. The measure forces the closure of 110,000 commercial establishments, according to data from the French Government, more than half of them in the Paris region.
On vaccines, the shadow of the doubt caused in recent weeks by the ups and downs of the European authorities with the AstraZeneca drug is also hovering. More than half of the Member States, including Spain, decided to suspend the vaccination campaign earlier this week until the European Medicines Agency (EMA) ruled on several incidents of thrombosis in vaccinated people with the AstraZeneca product. “It is safe and effective,” the regulator finally reiterated last Thursday, although without ruling out a link with isolated risks, which should be indicated in the prospectuses.
Distribution was resumed at the end of the week in Germany, France and Italy, and some leaders, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the helm, announced their intention to be vaccinated with AstraZeneca. But it remains to be seen if that imaging operation cleanses the stigma of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine.
Suerie Moon, co-director of the Center for Global Health at the Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva, believes that the AstraZeneca scare is within expectations. “When you scale the number of people receiving a vaccine from tens of thousands to millions, the rare becomes less rare,” he says. But think that the doubts generated could spread to the rest of the laboratories. “The coup can potentially damage confidence,” he says.
Doubts to be immunized
In France, only 20% of the population trusts the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to a survey for the BFMTV television network carried out after the temporary suspension of the use of that product. Confidence in BioNTech is more than double (52%). The fall of AstraZeneca is very significant even for a country like France, where in February, before the first doubts, only 44% of the population was willing to be vaccinated, compared to 66% in Italy, 58% in Spain or 56% in Germany.
The French MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, from the liberal group Renew and a member of the Health and Environment commission, which oversees the vaccine strategy, believes that the temporary suspension of AstraZeneca may finally be positive because it has shown the public that each life counts. Trillet-Lenoir applauds both the stoppage and the return of vaccination after the favorable opinion of the EMA. But he acknowledges that in countries like his, where anti-vaccine movements have deep roots, campaigns with famous faces and young people getting vaccinated may be necessary.
The debacle has prompted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to harden her tone in recent days. In the community corridors, people begin to talk about dismissals and resignations. “The Commission asked to be in charge of the vaccination strategy without having powers to do so and once the Member States agreed to transfer it to them, it has been unable to organize it,” says a community source. The European Parliament, which has so far closed ranks with Von der Leyen, is also beginning to lose patience and could demand accountability if the European strategy also derails in the second quarter.
Faced with the risk of vaccines becoming a boomerang that endangers his tenure, Von der Leyen has put himself on a trade war footing against the United Kingdom, where AstraZeneca factories have not produced a single dose destined for The EU. The EU president warned on Wednesday that she is ruling out “nothing” to ensure supply, including a ban on vaccine exports to the UK, which has received 10 million doses from the continent (mostly from Pfizer-BioNTech), while no vial has crossed the English Channel in the opposite direction.
Trillet-Lenoir believes it was time to “show teeth, threaten AstraZeneca and through it the UK,” he says. In his opinion, the confrontation with this company will require a solution on two fronts: a contractual one, which can go to court, and a diplomatic one, before the British Government. “But the Brexit experience tells us that it will not be easy.”
The Commission is already preparing the first step towards this possible legal battle: it plans to send a letter to the company in the next few days to initiate an arbitration, a conciliation mechanism contemplated in the contract with the company. If the amicable resolution of the dispute does not work, the contract provides that it will be settled before the Belgian courts of justice.