Breton seeks to inject drive into EU’s stuttering vaccine push

It was never going to be an easy encounter. In early February, days after AstraZeneca disclosed crushing coronavirus vaccine delivery shortfalls to EU officials, Thierry Breton, the internal market commissioner, held a video call with the company’s chief executive Pascal Soriot

Breton — a French industrialist and former finance minister — quizzed his countryman on why he was 16,000km away from the European factories struggling to meet production targets.

“Personally I ran five big listed companies in my life. I never knew how to do it in a remote way,” Breton told the Financial Times. “I told him I was a little bit surprised he was doing this from Australia.”

The pointed questioning summed up Breton’s combative embrace of the job of the EU’s vaccine troubleshooter after its Covid-19 immunisation drive made a difficult start this year. The former boss of multinationals including France Telecom and Atos has taken a reputational gamble and brought his trademark pugnacity to a new industrial sector, after assuming charge of a vaccine task force aimed at bolstering EU production. 

Jytte Guteland, a leading centre-left MEP on the European Parliament’s environment and public health committee, said there was a recognition in the assembly that Breton and the rest of the commission were increasing efforts to boost supply. But she added that it was too soon for MEPs to ease their pressure on the EU executive. 

“I would never be satisfied . . . as long as we have the situation we have now with many citizens still waiting for vaccines,” she said. “I mean, we don’t have the speed we need.”

Thierry Breton, centre, in protective gear visiting a plant producing Covid-19 vaccines for AstraZeneca in Seneffe, Belgium © REUTERS

Breton was dispatched to Brussels in 2019 after French president Emmanuel Macron’s previous nominee as commissioner, Sylvie Goulard, was rejected by the European Parliament. He quickly established a reputation for aggressively driving his agenda, including in the realm of technology regulation, clashing with Margrethe Vestager, the executive vice-president who oversees the area. 

As the two commissioners thrashed out the details of new legislation, Breton issued a call for the break-up of Big Tech companies who broke the law and disadvantaged rivals. His picture ended up in a secret Google dossier that discussed ways of attacking him — forcing the company’s chief executive to apologise after it leaked. “He knows how things work and how to go after us,” said an executive at one large US internet company.

In his native France, Breton’s forthright manner has rubbed the country’s establishment up the wrong way. “He has his own ideas, which sometimes can be far from reality,” complained one executive.

Yet his willingness to take personal charge of difficult subjects has yielded results, both in politics and in business. During the controversial merger of Suez and Gaz de France in 2007, which required unions and deputies to accept the principle of privatising the state-owned gas company, Breton worked nonstop, a former finance ministry staffer recalls. 

“He met with almost all the deputies and personally tried to talk, teach and convince them. He dedicated all his energy to getting that law passed — and he succeeded.”

The vaccines crisis has enabled Breton, a voluble ex-professor of corporate governance, to amass further influence and boost his prominence in Brussels. He has clashed with the UK, insisting it will get “zero” exports of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as long as the company does not export to the bloc from its British factories. He has also publicly challenged Soriot over AstraZeneca’s vaccine strategy, appealing directly to the company’s board to push management to make up supply shortfalls. 

A person familiar with Breton’s interactions with Soriot challenged the criticism of his decision to remain in Australia, where the AstraZeneca chief is based, and questioned Breton’s strategy of criss-crossing the continent for high-profile factory trips. 

“Visits generate Covid contamination risk that requires management, in addition to the distraction generated for the local teams,” the person said, noting that Soriot was in regular touch with plant managers. They added that the AstraZeneca chief had provided Breton with an “introduction” to the manufacturing processes because he was “very new to the world of pharmaceuticals and vaccines”. 

For his part, Breton insists he has long been examining how to turn pioneering vaccine discoveries into mass production — a process that Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, has admitted the EU underestimated.

He recalls holding informal talks with the pharma sector last summer as he made efforts to understand the industrial landscape and the steps needed to “upscale it”. He says he read up on pioneering mRNA vaccine technology last summer out of “personal interest”. 

Part of his task in recent weeks has been to get a clearer sense of the EU’s industrial capacities. He aims to facilitate so-called matchmaking efforts, hooking up bits of the continent’s pharmaceutical supply chain while addressing shortages of key components, including filters and plastic bioreactor bags

Breton has also led talks with the White House aimed at easing transatlantic barriers to the vaccine supply chain. His efforts in Europe have included five factory visits — including to the Belgian and Dutch factories at the centre of AstraZeneca’s troubled EU rollout — and face-to-face meetings with more half a dozen EU leaders. He holds regular calls with corporate bosses as he seeks to get Europe’s vaccine production drive back on track. 

One senior EU diplomat praised the commissioner’s travels to production facilities, saying: “Breton has been to factories where even the CEOs of companies have not visited.” But an EU official warned that it is not yet clear how successful the task force will be at achieving “tangible results” when it comes to easing supply bottlenecks. 

Brandishing a map of 53 production sites in 12 countries, Breton argues the EU now has a “pretty good view” of the capacity of each of the factories, as well as its stock and progress. This has permitted the commission to carefully monitor contract delivery, something critics say it was insufficiently focused on earlier in the process. 

Breton says he is increasingly confident the bloc will, barring “accidents”, hit its revised second-quarter goal of supplying 360m doses after limping just past 100m shots in the first three months of 2021. 

Since a big cut in AstraZeneca supply is already factored in, the target should be achievable. That helps explain why Breton, who emphasises that he is above all a “politician”, has enthusiastically embraced it.

If he is wrong, the damage both to the EU and the commission’s leadership will be severe. 

Additional reporting from Jim Brunsden, Javier Espinoza and Mehreen Khan in Brussels

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