Commission goes on offensive in bid to deflect alarm at vaccine programme

Speaking to MEPs on Tuesday, Sandra Gallina, the executive’s Director General of health, launched a blistering attack on AstraZeneca, the pharma company at the centre of a huge spat with the EU over vaccine supplies.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

24 Mar 2021

Gallina accepted that “many people in Europe are dying because the vaccines are not getting there,” but she told Parliament’s budgetary control committee that the Commission did not plan to ban exports of vaccines to the UK and other countries, despite a growing clamour for such action.

Gallina also frankly admitted that the EU and others had suffered “huge reputational damage” by the sluggish vaccine rollout in Member States, particularly compared with the UK.

The official also took a sideways swipe at the UK and some other nations, saying, “Unlike some others, we [the EU] have not just gone for emergency use of these vaccines. We chose the European way, with prior assessment rather than just totally be in the hands of the pharma companies.”

Her comments come with cases again spiralling across Europe and with several Member States, including Germany and Belgium, set to impose yet tougher lockdown restrictions over the Easter holidays.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is now at the centre of political tensions between the UK and EU over the firm’s contractual obligations.

Despite Gallina’s comments, the EU is now thought to be considering an export ban targeting AstraZeneca production in Europe. EU officials complain that too much of the vaccine is going to the UK and other countries, rather than staying in the EU.

“The vaccination campaign has been made worse by the very bad performance of AstraZeneca. This has also created huge reputational damage for all of us” Sandra Gallina, European Commission Director-General, Health and Food Safety

Gallina said, “Of course, we are not happy about AstraZeneca. The current problems [of supplies] has been caused by this one company so we have serious problems with them.”

“We expected a certain volume of deliveries from AstraZeneca and we have not even received a quarter of that number. The vaccination campaign has been made worse by the very bad performance of AstraZeneca. This has also created huge reputational damage for all of us.”

Calling for a “change of approach” from AstraZeneca, Gallina said, “It is under an obligation to supply vaccines to us and it is not doing so. The situation is currently bad because AstraZeneca was the company which had vaccine doses in huge numbers in the first two quarters of the year.”

“Some 300m doses were ordered from them by the EU but not having these AstraZeneca doses has caused very serious issues in Europe.”

Gallina said only one of AstraZeneca’s five European plants were supplying the EU market and warned, “AstraZeneca is not in a good position to defend itself and we intend to take action because this cannot be left unattended - we will use all the tools at our disposal to get the doses of vaccines.”

But she appeared to rule out an export ban, saying, “The EU supports over 30 countries with vaccines and we not going to close down this opportunity with an export ban or other kind of limitation.”

“Europe is the biggest vaccine supplier to the rest of the world, while others have introduced exports. We have a monitoring policy but, yes, we will take action against AstraZeneca. I stress we will use all the tools available to us and a formal notice has already been issued to AstraZeneca in which we express our comments on these issues. The important thing now is to get the doses from AstraZeneca.”

“Unlike some others, we [the EU] have not just gone for emergency use of these vaccines. We chose the European way, with prior assessment rather than just totally be in the hands of the pharma companies” Sandra Gallina, European Commission Director-General, Health and Food Safety

The committee heard that vaccine rates in Europe were very low, between 5 to 8 percent compared with over 50 percent in the UK.

Gallina said that, so far, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna appeared to be by far the most reliable and punctual suppliers, with accurate numbers every week until the end of next month. By the end of April, it is estimated that Pfizer will have delivered more than 1.4 million doses.

She said, “We knew it would not be easy in the first quarter and that there would not be many doses distributed, but I fully respect Moderna and Pfizer for delivering every week, albeit with a few blips.”

“There are four vaccines in use in Europe with another 300m doses likely in the second quarter of the year. The 70 percent vaccination target is still the plan, but we need these additional vaccines by June. With a good delivery in the second quarter this target can be achieved but we need to be vigilant on the performance of the companies.”

“In the first quarter only some of the four companies have delivered and AstraZeneca is not living up to our expectations.”

She told the committee, “We are satisfied with the other companies we signed contracts with. The polar star is that these companies are delivering on their contracts and are doing their best to meet demand. The will is there to provide vaccines.”

“It’s a miracle we have these vaccines at all, but it is clear that all companies were ill prepared for this.”

She said that if production is ramped up the EU’s target of vaccinating 70 percent of the adult population by the end of the summer was still “realistic.”

“I stress we will use all the tools available to us and a formal notice has already been issued to AstraZeneca in which we express our comments on these issues.”

The EU is also relying on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she said, adding, “I can say with some confidence that we will have the first doses of this vaccine from mid-April.”

“The fact that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine needs only one jab is very important and this will be a major boost to the vaccination campaign. I also hope others will come on board.”

Czech EPP committee member Tomáš Zdechovský said, “The 70 percent target is very ambitious target and we have to ask if this is still realistic. Certainly, we are losing the support of EU citizens and you have to ask why it is possible for the UK to get vaccines from India but the EU cannot do this. This has to stop. There seem to have been dirty tricks and we cannot accept this.”

“Certainly, AstraZeneca should be ashamed of itself. We are supporting others with our vaccines but it is unfortunate and also shameful to see the UK and others taking all these vaccines. We are losing the people and losing the support of EU citizens.”

Romanian Renew Europe member Alin Mituta said, “We cannot be happy with the current state of affairs. A contract was signed with AstraZeneca for 400m doses so why does it not deliver these?”

“Also, 40m doses have been exported out of the EU, especially to the UK but deliveries to the EU are delayed. Why did the Commission allow that to happen? Less than 5 percent of adults in the EU have so far received both doses. Is this satisfactory for the Commission?”

French Greens member Michele Rivasi  said, “We’ve supported the Commission on this but, unfortunately, it has not respected its commitments. I want to know how much money has been given to each pharma laboratory?”

“Is it right that €240m went to AstraZeneca? This is the budgetary control committee, so we need to know what’s been spent and on what.”

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