EU leaders vented frustration over sluggish deliveries of coronavirus vaccines and manufacturing delays as anxiety rises over the rapid spread of new variants.
The bloc’s presidents and premiers expressed their fears on Thursday evening as drug company executives in a separate marathon session with EU legislators defended their performance, insisting they were doing what they could to ramp up production rapidly.
The heads of state and government were meeting for a video summit aimed at reviewing the EU’s immunisation campaign, after weeks of complaints that the bloc is lagging the US and UK.
While Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, came in for criticism over the procurement plan earlier this year, many leaders were supportive of her on Thursday, focusing their fire on big pharma companies’ ability to live up to their contractual commitments, officials said.
Some, including Italy’s new prime minister Mario Draghi, questioned why the EU was not imposing stricter vaccine export controls akin to those seen in the US. Brussels last month introduced a mechanism to stop shipments by companies deemed not to be meeting delivery obligations to the EU.
A number of leaders also pushed for further steps towards the use of vaccination certificates in the union, with the commission set to continue technical work ahead of the crucial summer travel period.
“There is a growing Covid fatigue among our citizens,” von der Leyen said in a press conference after the meeting. “It has been a very trying year but we should not let up now. Not only does the situation remain serious in many parts of Europe but we must also watch out for the variants that are spreading.”
Leaders called for supplies to be stepped up and production on EU soil to be expanded — something the commission has been pledging to do under the leadership of a task force led by Thierry Breton, internal market commissioner.
The simultaneous talks between political leaders and the hearings with corporate executives highlighted the concerns in Brussels and across the capitals of EU member states as they grapple with multiple problems in the bloc’s immunisation drive.
“Everyone speaks only about vaccines and vaccination,” said one senior bloc diplomat concerning the summit. “A number of countries want to expand production facilities inside the EU.”
The bloc’s inoculation rate of 6.6 shots per 100 residents is well behind the 20.1 seen in the US and the 28.3 seen in the UK, according to Financial Times data, although some of that is due to shortcomings in the national inoculation programmes of individual member states.
The issue for the EU is a first-quarter vaccine supply squeeze that is hard to remedy at this point and is being worsened by manufacturing production glitches, notably with the AstraZeneca jab it had relied on.
Von der Leyen showed slides to leaders setting out how the vaccination drive should ramp up in the coming months if manufacturers fulfil their commitments. Only a portion of those deliveries — a total of over 300m doses for the first and second quarters — is at this stage firmly committed and scheduled, the slides showed.
She said she remains confident the EU will hit its goal of offering vaccines to 70 per cent of the adult population by the end of the summer.
Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, told MEPs his company was “doing everything that we can” to deliver 40m doses during the first quarter of the year — itself a revised target well below the 100m or more the EU had originally expected by the end of March.
“Developing and manufacturing a safe and effective vaccine normally takes years to perfect, test and stabilise the manufacturing process,” he said at the hearing of the parliament’s public health and industry committees. “We have undertaken in only months an ultra-complex effort that is not without risk.”
Executives warned against export bans and told sometimes hostile MEPs that a combination of the short time available to refine manufacturing techniques and the need to produce round the clock meant every setback could disrupt hoped-for supply timelines.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, in a press conference, noted that while the US and UK were not exporting vaccines, Europe was manufacturing them for a swath of countries around the world. “That’s okay as long as the countries stick to the contracts they struck with the commission,” she said.
She underlined that the vaccination rollout also hinged on member states’ ability to vaccinate their citizens quickly. “Of course it’s the case that the vaccination campaign got off to a slow start, but I noted that we now have to prepare all the logistics in the next few weeks to ensure that all the available vaccine doses really are administered.”
The commission slides seen by the Financial Times showed that over 51m vaccine doses will have been delivered in the EU by the end of the month, but only 29.2m have been administered thus far.
Drug executives also sought to allay fears that supply shortages would be compounded if jabs showed lower effectiveness against mutant coronavirus strains identified in countries including the UK and South Africa.
“We know the world needs more doses. It needs more doses now — but we also need to be ready for the variants,” said Angela Hwang, president of global biopharma for Pfizer, whose vaccine developed with Germany’s BioNTech was the first to win EU regulatory approval. “We are actively researching what it is we need to do on the variants.”
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin