EU leaders have expressed frustration at slow deliveries coronavirus vaccines and manufacturing delays as concern grows over the rapid spread of new variants.
Bloc presidents and prime ministers expressed fears on Thursday evening as drug company executives in a separate marathon session with EU lawmakers defended their performance, insisting they were doing what they could to speed up production.
Heads of state and government gathered for a video summit to review the EU’s vaccination campaign, after weeks of complaints that the bloc is lagging behind the US and UK.
While Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, criticized the procurement plan earlier this year, many executives backed it on Thursday, focusing their fire on the ability of large pharmaceutical companies to meet their contractual commitments , officials said. .
Some, including the new Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, questioned why the EU did not impose stricter controls on vaccine exports similar to those seen in the United States. Brussels presented last month a mechanism to stop shipments by companies reputed not to meet delivery obligations towards the EU.
A number of leaders also insisted that further steps be taken towards the use of vaccination certificates within the union, with the committee ready to continue technical work ahead of the crucial summer travel period.
“There is growing Covid fatigue among our citizens,” von der Leyen said at a press conference after the meeting. “It has been a very trying year, but we must not let go now. Not only does the situation remain serious in many parts of Europe, but we also have to be careful of the variants that are spreading.
Leaders called for stepping up supplies and increasing production on EU soil – something the Commission has pledged to do under the leadership of a task force led by Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner. indoor market.
Simultaneous talks between political leaders and hearings with business leaders highlighted concerns in Brussels and in the capitals of EU member states as they grapple with multiple issues in the campaign to block vaccination.
“Everyone is only talking about vaccines and vaccination,” a senior bloc diplomat said of the summit. “A number of countries want to expand their production facilities inside the EU.”
According to Financial Times data, the block inoculation rate of 6.6 shots per 100 population is well below the 20.1 seen in the United States and the 28.3 seen in the United Kingdom, according to data from the Financial Times, although this is partly due to shortcomings in Member States’ national immunization programs. .
The problem for the EU is a crunch in vaccine supply in the first quarter which is difficult to address at this point and which is compounded by manufacturing production issues, especially with the AstraZeneca jab it relied on.
Von der Leyen showed slides to executives explaining how the vaccination campaign is expected to ramp up in the coming months if manufacturers meet their commitments. Only a portion of those deliveries – a total of over 300 million doses for the first and second quarters – are firmly committed and planned at this point, the slides showed.
She said she remains confident that the EU will meet its goal of providing vaccines to 70% of the adult population by the end of the summer.
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, told MPs his company “was doing everything possible” to deliver 40 million doses in the first quarter of the year – itself a revised target well below 100 million or more than the EU had originally expected at the end of March.
“The development and manufacture of a safe and effective vaccine normally takes years to perfect, test and stabilize the manufacturing process,” he said during the hearing of parliamentary committees on public health and the ‘industry. “In a few months we have undertaken an ultra-complex effort which is not without risk.”
Executives cautioned against export bans and told sometimes hostile MPs that the combination of little time available to refine manufacturing techniques and the need to produce around the clock meant any setback could disrupt businesses. expected supply times.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a press conference, noted that while the United States and the United Kingdom do not export vaccines, Europe makes them for many countries around the world. “It does not matter as long as countries respect the contracts they have made with the commission,” she said.
She stressed that the roll-out of vaccination also depends on the ability of Member States to rapidly vaccinate their citizens. “Of course, it is true that the vaccination campaign has started slowly, but I have noted that we now have to prepare all the logistics in the coming weeks to ensure that all available vaccine doses are actually administered.
Commission slides seen by the Financial Times showed more than 51 million doses of the vaccine will have been delivered in the EU by the end of the month, but only 29.2 million have been administered so far .
Pharmaceutical executives have also sought to allay fears that supply shortages could be compounded if injections show less efficacy against mutant coronavirus strains identified in countries such as the UK and South Africa. .
“We know the world needs more doses. It needs more doses now – but we also need to be ready for the variants, ”said Angela Hwang, president of global biopharmacy for Pfizer, whose vaccine developed with BioNTech in Germany was the first to gain approval. EU regulatory framework. “We are actively researching what we need to do on the variants.”
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin