David Sassoli admits EU vaccines strategy marked by ‘mistakes’ and ‘shortcomings’

The European Parliament President said, “I am not giving away any secrets here as the Commission itself has admitted there have been deficiencies and shortcomings.”
European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

25 Feb 2021

Speaking on Thursday, Sassoli also strongly defended the much-criticised strategy which has seen the EU fall far behind other countries like the UK, the US and Israel on the vaccine rollout.

For example, so far, a mere 3.4 percent of Belgians have received a vaccine compared with one third of all adults in the UK.

It is also estimated that 20 to 30 percent of vaccines which are supposed to have been given to Member States still remain in their fridges in warehouses without having been delivered.

Sassoli told a press conference, “Yes, mistakes have been made and there have been shortcomings. There has also been a bit of naivety.”

“Some problems have arisen in the supply and distribution chains. There is a big difference between the quantities of doses promised by industry and those currently being made available.”

“But this is not just a European problem and we also have a have a responsibility for what is happening on the rollout in places like Africa. But, yes, I accept that we do need to support increased vaccine production in Europe.”

Sassoli was speaking after giving a speech to the two-day EU summit which started earlier on Thursday. Vaccines will the main issue up for debate at the online meeting.

Sassoli said “the world has stopped” as a result of the crisis”, adding “my message today to the Council was that in the future the EU must be in a better position to have the power and clout to act to protect public health.”

Referring to the alleged failure of pharma companies to honour their vaccine supply obligations to the EU, he said, “Contracts need to be respected and we also need a network of industrial capacity throughout the EU otherwise we will not be able to respond to this sort of crisis in the future.”

“A vaccine certificate is on the agenda at the summit and I hope this will be agreed to but it is clear that industry is struggling to keep up with science and this should give us food for thought. This is one of the ongoing lessons in this crisis” David Sassoli, European Parliament President

He said, “A vaccine certificate is on the agenda at the summit and I hope this will be agreed to but it is clear that industry is struggling to keep up with science and this should give us food for thought. This is one of the ongoing lessons in this crisis. A year ago we didn’t have sufficient masks and this showed we must not relocate parts of our industry. That is another lesson.”

“The summit this week is a chance to take stock of a dramatic year and a crisis that has taught us a number of lessons. It would be wise not to shelve these lessons.”

He added, “A vaccination rollout is a pre-condition for economic recovery, but this is only possible if vaccination happens.”

On the rollout he was asked about comparisons with the UK and whether this undermined public confidence in EU.

He replied, “Had we not given up vaccine procurement powers to the Commission to deal with this we would have had rich countries taken up the bulk of vaccines with the rest left with the leftovers.”

“But, yes, this has caused problems as we delegated powers to an institution [the Commission] without it having any real health competences. All this has also been done in a hurry because this pandemic won’t wait for us.”

Speaking in Parliament, he told reporters, “The performance of the EU can and will be improved upon. But I ask you: what would have happened if so many diverse countries in the EU, all 27, had not given vaccine procurement powers to the Commission?”

“We cannot go back to the law of the strongest, that would be scandalous and I am sure public opinion will support our approach.”

“Yes, mistakes have been made and there have been shortcomings. There has also been a bit of naivety but give it time before you draw conclusions as these conclusions might change. Before I pass judgement I need a better understanding of where others are going.”

He noted, “This is not a race against the others. We in the EU have kept to certain standards and that is useful and intelligent in the fight against this crisis.”

“My message today to the Council was that in the future the EU must be in a better position to have the power and clout to act to protect public health”

David Sassoli, European Parliament President

“Those who want vaccine nationalism might prove to be wrong and I still believe that a 70 percent vaccination target in the EU is still achievable by the summer as is a gradual reopening of society and our economies.”

In his speech to the summit, Sassoli said, “For the first time since our last meeting in December, we can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Three vaccines have been approved by the European Medicines Agency, with more on the way. Vaccination rollout is gathering pace: 9 million have had the requisite two doses, while more than 18 million have received their first jab.”

“The EU continues to expand its vaccine portfolio: it has secured 600 million additional doses, bringing the total to 2.6 billion – more than enough to vaccinate the entire EU population.”

The Italian member said, “It was forward-looking of our governments to give the Commission the mandate to procure vaccines to distribute among all 27 Member States.”

“It is thanks to our collective approach that European countries have not been pitted against each other and the rich countries have not bought up most of the vaccines. I am strongly opposed to bilateral agreements.”

He said he has urged leaders “to stand firm and not succumb to the temptation of vaccine nationalism.”

He also supports a vaccination certificate which “can be the right tool to allow everyone, in an equal and non-discriminatory way, to return to normality.”

But he warns, "We cannot wait and time is not on our side. In view of the worrying SARS-CoV-2 variants that have emerged recently, I welcome the HERA incubator initiative. We must focus our efforts on detecting and combating new variants through specialised PCR tests, on stepping up genome sequencing, and on making sure vaccines are effective against new strains.”

Sassoli added, “Vaccination campaigns can only succeed if there is public trust. We should also be prepared to enter into more advanced purchase agreements if vaccines need to be modified to beat new variants. Trust is rooted in information and transparency.”

He noted that, this month, the COVAX facility will start delivering vaccines, adding, “I know that all the Member States are in a position to donate their vaccine surplus to countries that need it. I would encourage a unified approach with Member States pledging their doses through COVAX, in order to ensure fair and equitable redistribution.”

Elsewhere, a draft resolution adopted on Thursday by the transport and tourism committee also supports a common vaccination certificate, which, members said, could become an alternative to PCR tests and quarantine requirements.

But this is only “once there is sufficient evidence that vaccinated persons do not transmit the virus, or mutual recognition of vaccination procedures.”

Also on Thursday, the Commission urged online platforms to take more action fighting vaccine disinformation.

Věra Jourová, vice-president for Values and Transparency, said, “Online platforms need to take responsibility to prevent harmful and dangerous disinformation, both domestic and foreign, from undermining our common fight against the virus and the efforts towards vaccination.”

“But platforms’ efforts alone will not suffice. It is also crucial to strengthen cooperation with public authorities, media and civil society to provide reliable information.”

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