EU needs common strategy for COVID-19 vaccine roll-out

Romanian MEP Vlad Gheorghe argues that a common EU approach is the best way to ensure vaccines are delivered quickly and safely. Martin Banks reports.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

07 Jan 2021

Finding a vaccine to help control the still rapid spread of the Coronavirus is one thing but getting it into the arms of millions of people is another thing entirely. That is the blunt message from Vlad Gheorghe, an Renew Europe deputy, who is concerned that insufficient efforts are currently being made to ensure enough people are vaccinated.

His demand for what he calls a “common strategy” comes after Britain last week started rolling out its second coronavirus vaccine to its population. The UK, having already delivered over 1.3 million dozes of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, is well ahead of all EU Member States in terms of roll out. By comparison, for example, Germany has administered only around 300,000 doses.

As explained by a European Commission spokesperson, the European Union’s strategy has been to pre-order doses of vaccines from multiple companies. This “diverse approach”, he said, ensures that the EU does “not put all our eggs in one basket.”

The Commission’s chief spokesperson, Eric Mamer, told reporters the number of ordered doses is more than enough to inoculate everyone. These include vaccines developed by AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. But the Commission has come under fierce attack for what is seen as a sometimes painfully slow roll out of vaccines so far.

Gheorghe says one of the key challenges now for public health authorities in Europe is vaccine transportation, a topic debated at the last European Parliament plenary of 2020. The MEP considers vaccine transportation to be just as challenging as the development of a vaccine itself.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), his home state, Romania, has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the EU.

“If we do not get the vaccine to people quickly and efficiently, that will render the vaccine useless and would be a tragedy because people are dying from this" Romanian Renew Europe MEP Vlad Gheorghe

He readily accepts that dosing 440 million Europeans with COVID-19 vaccines is no small feat, especially if, as in the Pfizer case, it will require two doses per patient. Add to that all the medical supplies and medical equipment that will be required, and it is a huge task, he says.

Authorities must also tackle the unprecedented cold storage requirements of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be stored at -70°C a temperature met only with the coldest deep freezers.

Pharmacies do not have freezers this cold, because no approved drug has ever needed to be held at this temperature. Only large medical centres, universities and perhaps some public health departments are likely to have such deep freezers.

These are some of the reasons why Gheorghe is pressing for the Commission to draft a “common strategy” to ensure Member States adopt adequate measures for the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines and that transportation processes and costs do not hamper the “proper and adequate distribution of vaccines.”

He said, “If we do not get the vaccine to people quickly and efficiently, that will render the vaccine useless and would be a tragedy because people are dying from this. It would also be a tragedy for our economies in Europe. The national lockdowns have been necessary in order to protect lives but this has also had a huge economic impact.”

He explains, “On transportation, one of the main concerns, of course, is that the Pfizer vaccine has to be kept at such a low temperature otherwise it is useless. We want it to be delivered effectively so as to be successful, but the question is: how to do this?”

"We need to use the same common rules as we do in other areas of EU policy and also to use our recent experience of the crisis to be sure the vaccine is given in the quickest way possible” Romanian Renew Europe MEP Vlad Gheorghe

The answer, he argues, is “a common and clear strategy” on transporting the vaccine at EU level, adding, “This is for the Commission to coordinate. We need to use the same common rules as we do in other areas of EU policy and also to use our recent experience of the crisis to be sure the vaccine is given in the quickest way possible.”

He recalls that in February and March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, which has claimed over 500,000 deaths in Europe alone, some Member States experienced problems with freight transport at some EU borders.

“The crisis, with the distribution of protective medical materials in spring 2020, was overcome only after green lanes were put in place, which took time.”

“We now need to use our experience of what happened then to avoid something similar happening again in the current vaccine roll out.”

“This time we need to be quick, as any delays will cause deaths and have additional costs. Delays can be caused by the difference in national infrastructure systems, while some countries are more prepared than others. The role of carriers is vital. Vaccine transportation is a matter of security and health security.”

He adds, “We need to put in place today a clear algorithm for medical product transportation so that the EU is also ready for future emergencies.” “Of course, Member States must be aligned with this.  It is all about good coordination between Member States and the EU.”

"We need to be quick, as any delays will cause deaths and have additional costs. Delays can be caused by the difference in national infrastructure systems, while some countries are more prepared than others. The role of carriers is vital. Vaccine transportation is a matter of security and health security” Romanian Renew Europe MEP Vlad Gheorghe

He adds, “I am confident they will do this, but we need to act now in drawing up a common strategy and this is what I have proposed to the Commission. Time is of the essence here, but I fully trust the Commission and Member States to work together on this.” “What we need is to get vaccines from the factory to the public as soon as possible.”

“But,” he cautions, “this is not a sprint. It is not a question of who gets it first but, rather, who gets the safest vaccine. We are talking about lives so this is important, and I am confident the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is doing the right thing.”

The MEP says, “There is no room for political interference or pressure. The EMA, needs to make a decision on vaccines according to the rules. This is a scientific matter and trust is essential. The EMA must be 100 percent sure about any vaccine it decides to authorise.”

He went on, “Right now I see the main focus as, first, getting vaccines manufactured. The next challenge then is transportation.”

The MEP, a Transport and Tourism Committee member, says, “Personally, I am young and have no serious illness so I am not near the top of the waiting list but when my turn comes, probably not until spring 2021, I will be happy to be vaccinated and so too will my family.”

“My big hope is that we in Europe will be able to manufacture vaccines and then transport them efficiently. Trust is vital but I have confidence in the EU to do this because the EU respects its laws and procedures and that is also why I will be very comfortable about having a vaccine.”

The International Air Transport Association, (IATA), the trade association for the world’s airlines, estimated that the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines will require more than 8,000 747 jumbo freighters to meet global demand.

It is huge task, but Gheorghe says, “If everyone does their job and does not rush things, I am sure this will be effective and, eventually, help us to return to normality.”

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