Having royally botched its vaccine programme, the EU is now threatening Brexit Britain’s supplies.
The vaccine race has turned ugly. Really ugly. German government sources have used the German press to brief fake news about the efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, and the EU has threatened to block exports of the Pfizer vaccine to Britain.
Until these bombshells were dropped, you could have been forgiven for wondering if the EU was even taking part in the vaccine race, as Brexit Britain has vastly outpaced the rollout on the continent.
In fact, defenders of the EU (apparently such people still exist) have been assuring us that there was nothing wrong with the slower pace. ‘What’s so great about going first?’, sneered one writer in the Guardian on the day the first Brits received their vaccines. Fewer deaths, perhaps? An end to lockdown? A spokesman for Belgium’s Covid-19 crisis centre suggested that his country (which has suffered the highest Covid deaths per capita in the entire world) could afford a slower rollout because the restrictions were working just fine. One MEP, apparently convinced that the rollout needed more hurdles, has petitioned the European Commission to make sure that all vehicles and boxes delivering the vaccines are emblazoned with the EU flag.
You can see why supporters of the EU would want to deflect the issue. The EU took charge of two key aspects of the vaccine process – the procurement and the approval – and both of these have created pointless (and deadly) delays.
Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) was the first agency in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine, on 2 December – 20 days before the European Medicines Agency (EMA), giving the UK a huge headstart. Then, on 30 December, the MHRA approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – it has still not been approved by the EU.
Procurement has consistently run into trouble, too. At the end of last year Der Spiegel warned that supplies could fall short. The EU had secured just 300million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the only one at the time to have been approved in the world. And despite the fact that EU member states had agreed to pool the procurement process, earlier this month it was revealed that Germany had bought an extra 30million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, behind everyone’s backs. Then, last week, AstraZeneca announced that it would not be able to fulfil its order to the EU. The EU was due to receive 100million doses in the first quarter of 2021, but one senior EU official fears it could be just 31million doses.
The EU has blamed AstraZeneca for the supply issues, but in truth this is a catastrophe made in Brussels. As ITV’s Robert Peston has pointed out, the UK secured a deal with AstraZeneca in May, three months before the EU did, giving AstraZeneca an additional three months to sort out problems with the UK supply chain (of which there were many). In June, AstraZeneca reached preliminary agreements with the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance – made up of Germany, the Netherlands, France and Italy. But then, the European Commission took over the negotiations on behalf of the whole of the EU, adding an extra two months of talks which resulted in ‘no material changes’. The EU is now paying for that wasted time.
It is in this context of failure that the EU and Germany are now throwing their toys out of the pram. German government sources briefed the financial newspaper, Handelsblatt, on Monday night, that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was only eight per cent effective on older people. This would be devastating for Germany’s planned rollout – but even more so for Britain’s, which has already vaccinated millions of vulnerable people using the home-grown jab.
AstraZeneca denied this immediately. And – after letting the news spread overnight – the German health authorities made clear that the sources had muddled the figures: ‘Around eight per cent of participants in the AstraZeneca efficacy trials were aged between 56 and 69 years old… This does not result in an efficacy of only eight per cent among seniors.’
Today, a day after the Handelsblatt bombshell, the EU has told Pfizer that it must secure EU permission before exporting doses from its Belgian factory to Britain. Germany has even suggested that vaccine exports could be blocked to secure the EU’s supply. The UK government says it is confident that it will meet its target of vaccinating the vulnerable by mid-February. And the UK’s own supplies of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab are unaffected. Nevertheless, the EU’s intervention has thrown the later stages of the rollout into doubt.
Having royally screwed up its own vaccination programme, the EU now wants to take it out on Brexit Britain.