EU countries in blame game over sluggish vaccine rollout

EU governments are facing growing pressure to speed up Covid-19 vaccination rates as sluggish progress triggers an acrimonious political blame game.

The German government said it was considering a delay in administering a second dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to make supplies go further, emulating a similar move by the UK last week.

The move came amid mounting criticism of health minister Jens Spahn, who has been accused of failing both to procure enough supplies of vaccine and to ensure a rapid start to the inoculation campaign.

Mr Spahn has come under fire for delegating the responsibility for securing stockpiles of the vaccine to the European Commission. But the government defended that approach on Monday, with spokesman Steffen Seibert saying it “was and is the right way”. 

The commission also hit back at criticism of its vaccine strategy, which was agreed by member states in June. “We have actually signed contracts that would allow member states to get access to 2bn doses, largely enough to vaccinate the whole of the EU population,” said Eric Mamer, commission chief spokesman.

He said it was “quite astonishing” that some people were asking why all doses were not immediately available, pointing to predicted manufacturing constraints, which meant distribution around the EU would gradually build up until a “big delivery” around April. 

“I don’t think that the issue is really the number of vaccines,” he told reporters in Brussels. “It’s the fact that we are at the beginning of a rollout.” 

So far, inoculation rates in the EU are lagging far behind other countries such as the UK and the US. Britain has vaccinated more than 1m people, while Germany has only administered around 265,000 shots of the 1.3m it has received so far.

One reason for the low rates is that the EU’s medical regulator gave its approval to the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine later than authorities in the UK, Israel and the US — though the EU body is set to give the green light to a second, made by Moderna of the US, in the next few days. The EU has signed contracts with a total of six vaccine producers, and confirmed on Monday that it was in discussions with Pfizer and BioNTech to secure more doses of their vaccine, beyond the 300m shots covered by the current contract.

Authorities across the EU are also looking at workarounds to help make their supplies go further. The German health ministry is seeking the view of an independent vaccination commission on whether to increase the number of doses that can be squeezed out of a vial of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine from five to six, as well as whether to delay a second shot beyond the current 42-day maximum limit. The Danish Health Authority will allow a wait of up to six weeks before administering a second dose, according to its head Soren Brostrom.

A box of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines arrives in Madrid. Last week the city used only about 6% of the first 49,000 doses it received © Paul White/AP
A vaccination centre in Würzburg: The German government said it was weighing a delay in administering a second dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine © Alex Kraus/Bloomberg

One problem that has emerged is the apparent inability of some EU member states to distribute the vaccine doses they already have, with sharp regional variations in inoculation rates. 

“Our capacity to administer and deliver the vaccine is not quite in place yet across Europe — certainly we are seeing considerable diversity in performance,” said Flemming Konradsen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen’s public health department.

Spain is one country that has seen big regional swings. Madrid, for example, last week used only about 6 per cent of the first 49,000 doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine it received. Antonio Zapatero, regional leader of the Covid-19 response, blamed the sluggish start on a day-long delay in the first delivery of vaccines, as well as requests from nursing homes to wait until after the new year’s holiday.

For its part, Catalonia only used about 8,000 of the 60,000 doses it received. But other regions, such as Asturias and Galicia, have already used more than half their doses. Overall, Spain has deployed only about 18 per cent of its jabs.

In Italy, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the rightwing Brothers of Italy party, has launched an online petition to gather public support for a motion of no confidence in prime minister Giuseppe Conte, in part due to his government’s handling of the vaccine rollout.

“We were concerned about the low number of doses that had arrived in Italy but the inability to administer these in time is all the more serious,” said Licia Ronzulli, a Brothers of Italy senator.

Domenico Arcuri, Italy’s emergency commissioner for the pandemic response, has said that his country is second in Europe only to Germany for the number vaccinated so far. So far 118,000 people have been vaccinated as of Sunday evening.

Reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, Michael Peel and Sam Fleming in Brussels, Ian Mount in Madrid and Miles Johnson in Rome

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