In Thursday’s post-meeting press conference after the second European Council of 2021, Ursula von der Leyen had lost her usual smile.
The under-fire president of the European Commission had spent the afternoon fielding complaints, questions and concerns from angry EU leaders, demanding answers on the bloc’s floundering vaccine rollout, which has been beset by delays, shortages and misinformation.
“There is growing Covid fatigue among our citizens,” von der Leyen said, herself appearing weary. “But we should not let up now.”
As if to underline the scale of the challenge facing the EU, not far from where the virtual summit was being chaired in Brussels, the boss of AstraZeneca was on a Zoom call of his own, reminding EU lawmakers how strong the vaccine maker’s relationship with the UK actually is.
Appearing before MEPs in what at times felt more like a trial, Pascal Soriot defended the contract signed with the UK, which, he pointed out, “financed the Oxford University vaccine research that began in January last year”, while “we did not receive any funds from the EU”.
The “fatigue” of Europe is in vast contrast to the newfound optimism in the UK, which this week lowered the official Covid-19 threat level, and revealed a road map that Boris Johnson said would set Britain on a “cautious but irreversible journey to freedom”.
Across the Channel this week, there has been a series of very different announcements.
French prime minister Jean Castex used a televised address to warn France it will impose weekend lockdowns in Paris and 19 other regions from the start of March if signs of Covid-19 accelerating persist, matching restrictions already in force in Nice and Dunkirk.
In neighbouring Italy, the government revealed it would extend coronavirus restrictions due to expire next week until after Easter, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, German health minister Jens Spahn said he did not see any indications that the “all-clear” threshold for coronavirus case numbers, which would allow for an extensive reopening after months of national lockdown, was in touching distance.
It was hoped the EU Council would provide light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, partly in the shape of an ambitious plan being considered by. among others, Mario Draghi – attending his first summit as Italian prime minister – to use the factories of different pharma companies to produce vaccines.
The debate in Europe on the need to “encourage” or even “force” Big Pharma to share patents to guarantee the distribution of vaccines has been raging from the moment companies including AstraZeneca raised red flags over their delivery targets.
One hundred MEPs signed a letter earlier in the week urging the EU Commission and member states to move in that direction.
“The link between ownership of the patent and the exclusive licence to produce it must be severed: it is necessary that companies allow [...] production outside their sites. And if they will not voluntarily do so, there is the path of compulsory licences,” Italian MEP Patrizia Toia said, per HuffPost Italy.
But a lack of willingness among leaders to take such drastic measures has been matched by the reality of the logistical nightmare of copying vaccine production from one company’s factory and pasting it into another’s.
The plan appeared to false start before it could even be seriously considered.
Von der Leyen said she was “in favour of a voluntary license-sharing scheme” to ensure the necessary production of vaccines, and added that “some companies are already collaborating with each other”.
Access to the patent is useless if you don’t know how to make a vaccine.Pascal Soriot, CEO AstraZeneca
AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot was more direct.
“The problem is not the sharing of patents but increasing production,” Soriot told MEPs. “The industry is working 24 hours a day, but it must be understood that to produce in a new site people have to be trained. There must be a technology transfer and it takes time.
“Access to the patent is useless if you don’t know how to make a vaccine. Our team is training but we are at the limit of our possibilities. It is not a question of patents but of production capacities in the world.”
Time not on Europe’s side
Indeed, even if such a plan to encourage production collaboration was to get the green light in Europe, the timelines for accelerating the manufacture of vaccines at scale are sobering.
French president Emmanuel Macron said it could take “one year” to equip factories to achieve production autonomy.
EU commissioner Thierry Breton, the head of a taskforce attempting to repair the vaccine in chaos in Europe, said it could be closer to “12 to 18 months”.
“Time is not on our side,” German chancellor Angela Merkel admitted at the post-summit press conference on Thursday.
It was fresh reports of vaccine delivery shortfalls that had actually got the week off to such a bad start in Europe.
Reuters reported on Tuesday, citing an EU official directly involved in talks with the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker, that AstraZeneca expected to deliver less than half the Covid-19 vaccines it was contracted to supply the EU in the second quarter or 2021.
Von der Leyen attempted to calm nerves on Thursday by showing forecasts of vaccine deliveries for the first and second quarters of this year. The European Commission still expects the arrival of 300m vials from April to June, insisting that the goal of vaccinating 70% of the adult population by the summer – 255m people – is attainable.
A total of 51.5m doses have now been distributed in the EU and 29.2m jabs given, boosting the vaccination rate to 8% (5% received only a first dose, 3% more got a second).
But those reassurances were not enough, with Italy’s Mario Draghi pointing out the data was hardly encouraging.
The frustrations of Europe’s leaders were only made worse by comparisons to the UK, which has now given first doses to 28% of the total UK population, and 35% of people aged 18 and over.
As Europe’s leaders share anger at AstraZeneca, many EU citizens have also made their minds up about the drugmaker.
Just 15% of the AstraZeneca vaccines Germany has available have been administered, despite Angela Merkel warning new variants of Covid-19 risk a third wave in the country.
Merkel described the vaccine, which some essential workers have refused, as “a reliable vaccine, effective and safe,” although following German guidelines, the 66-year-old leader won’t be taking the jab herself.
Several European nations have recommended the drug only for people under 65, and other countries have recommended it for those under 55, because AstraZeneca’s trials included a relatively small number of older people.
French president Emmanuel Macron angered scientists last month when he called the AstraZeneca vaccine “quasi-ineffective” for people over 65 – a comment that came hours before the European Medicines Agency approved it and said it could be used for all adults, including those over 65. Those who criticised Macron argued that he had spoken irresponsibly and had encouraged vaccine scepticism.
As the EU still grapples with increasing vaccine supply, the slow pace of the rollout is now threatening a second European summer, with countries across the continent betting on a tourism boost to help turn around their recession-hit economies.
While there is agreement on the need to create a digital document or passport to allow travel, “it will take at least three months” to set it up, according to von der Leyen.
The potential sight of vaccinated Britons enjoying their summer, either home or abroad – while curfew-weary Europeans wait their turn – might be the final ignominy for the EU’s already battle-scarred leaders.
With files from Reuters and The Associated Press