Campaign groups take aim at Commission’s Coronavirus vaccine strategy

This comes after the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly launched an investigation into what campaigners call the Commission’s “secrecy” around its COVID-19 vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical companies.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

25 Jan 2021

Both the executive and Member States are coming under increasing fire over the perceived painfully slow rollout of the two vaccines so far approved by the EU.

In what could be a serious obstacle to the EU’s aim of vaccinating 70 percent of Europeans by September, AstraZeneca has now warned that it will significantly reduce deliveries of its Coronavirus jabs in the first three months of the year. EU approval is pending for the vaccine.

The EU has so far authorised vaccines from Moderna along with Pfizer with its German partner BioNTech.

The Commission said it had ordered some 2.3 billion doses of vaccines but, so far, the rollout of vaccines to Europe’s 450 million-strong population is seen as being very slow, particularly compared with some other countries, including the US, Israel and the UK.

On Monday, the UK announced it has so far vaccinated 6.3 million of its population. This compares with the slow rollout in many Member States such as Belgium where, it is believed, less than 250,000 people have been vaccinated.

The situation is barely better in most EU states, which are also still waiting for a third vaccination company to get approval from the EU.

Some Britons are now expected to get their second vaccine at a time when most Europeans are still waiting for their first jab.

On Friday, the outlook became even more gloomy when AstraZeneca said that deliveries to the EU will be “lower than initially anticipated” because of “reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain.”

“Four months ago we submitted FOI requests to throw light on the EU's COVID-19 vaccine deal negotiations with Big Pharma, but instead of transparency, the European Commission chose delay tactics and secrecy” Olivier Hoedeman, Corporate Europe Observatory

Last week, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted the “catastrophic moral failure” over vaccine distribution.

The EU says it is now primarily the job of Member States to ensure the rollout programme is conducted speedily and effectively.

But Member States have complained about serious continuing delays in vaccine supplies from Pfizer and Moderna, which, they say, is why the rollout is yet to gain the same momentum in Europe as in the UK and elsewhere.

Some countries in other parts of the world, such as New Zealand, are now starting to return to a more normal life with very few cases being reported.

The Ombudsman’s contracts probe was sparked by complaints filed by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) earlier this month against the Commission’s handling of two September 2020 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

One relates to the Commission allegedly denying access to its COVID-19 vaccine contract with AstraZeneca, the first contract which the Commission signed last year.

The second complaint is about the Commission’s reported refusal to disclose documents related to the vaccine negotiations.

Earlier this month, the Commission invited MEPs to read a redacted version of the CureVac contract under strict conditions in a reading room of the European Parliament. The five other contracts remain confidential, with neither MEPs nor the general public having any access to the texts.

Some €2.8 billion has been spent by the Commission on the development and advance purchase agreements for these vaccines.

But campaigners from transparency groups said, “it is shocking to learn that the doses bought by the EU cannot be passed on to low- and middle-income countries without permission from CureVac.”

Olivier Hoedeman, researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, said: “Four months ago we submitted FOI requests to throw light on the EU's COVID-19 vaccine deal negotiations with Big Pharma, but instead of transparency, the European Commission chose delay tactics and secrecy.”

He added, “Transparency is crucial for informed public debate, democratic accountability, and public trust. The Ombudsman’s investigation is great news and will hopefully result in a much-needed breakthrough.”

Meanwhile, European Medicine Agency (EMA) Director Emer Cooke will be quizzed by members of Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Security Committee on vaccine authorisation, availability and deployment at a meeting on Tuesday.

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