News of successful COVID-19 vaccines at the end of last year initially sparked hopes that billions would be vaccinated against the virus in the following months, with pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna pledging to deliver doses across the world. However, it has quickly become clear that demand for the vaccine is far surpassing the supply, and the EU in particular is facing a significant shortage problem. While the UK has administered 12.5 doses per 100 people and the US 8.4 per 100 people, the EU has fallen behind in the race to inoculate citizens: Germany, Italy and France have only vaccinated 2.7, 3.0 and 1.8 per cent of their populations respectively (data accurate as of 31st of January 2021). Though vaccine manufacturers have played a part in this, the EU is also partly to blame for the scenario that has arisen.
On the 2nd of December last year, the UK became the first Western country to give the green light to a COVID-19 vaccine, specifically the one developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, by issuing a temporary approval based on Phase 3 trial data it had received two weeks prior. This was not explicitly made possible by Brexit, as there were already regulations in place allowing temporary approval of an unlicensed medicinal product in the case of certain types of public health threats, including a pandemic. However, it highlighted the difference between the UK’s nationalistic approach and the EU’s commitment to rolling out vaccines to all countries at the same time, which meant that approval was required by every EU member state before the vaccine could enter circulation. Furthermore, concerns surrounding vaccine scepticism prompted EU governments to push for closer scrutiny, contributing to the hold-up. As a result, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which is responsible for approving all new drugs and vaccines across the EU, did not approve a vaccine until 21st of December – more than two weeks after the UK started to use it. Now, the bloc’s decision to prioritise solidarity between EU countries over giving individual governments more room to manoeuvre is being criticised for holding back the coronavirus response.
There have been further delays due to problems on the drug makers’ side too. On 21st January, AstraZeneca – with whom the EU has secured a contract – announced that its vaccine delivery to the EU would be cut by 60 percent in the first quarter of 2021, from 80 million doses to just 31 million. This comes as a blow, especially since the AstraZeneca vaccine is considered key to the global vaccination effort because it is cheaper to produce than rival vaccines and can be stored at fridge temperature between 2 degrees and 8 degrees Celsius. The issues were caused by production problems at a vaccine factory in Belgium and sparked outrage from the EU, as it regards it as a breach of contract by AstraZeneca. The European Commission also suspected that the pharmaceutical company was using EU facilities to fulfil international orders while European customers had to wait – a claim AstraZeneca has denied. Talks between AstraZeneca and the commission failed to cool the rising tension between them, with Brussels demanding full transparency concerning the export of vaccines from the EU. On the 29th of January, the commission unveiled tighter controls to stop vaccine shipments to non-EU nations across Europe as well as other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, which has triggered a backlash from business groups which warn that it could have a devastating impact on global vaccine supplies.
The situation is nearing a crisis as countries in the bloc have started to partly suspend immunisation due to a lack of doses. The Madrid region of Spain declared it would stop all new jabs for at least ten days in order to conserve doses for those in need of their second injection, with several other EU countries doing the same shortly afterward. The issues with vaccine production must be addressed quickly if the vaccination effort is to be successful. One way in which this could be done is through cooperation between competitors. French pharmaceutical company Sanofi, for example, has announced it will produce over 100 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine while its own vaccines are experiencing delays, which puts its existing production capacity to use. This move, known as ‘coopetition’ – simultaneous competition and cooperation – would boost production and help to deliver doses more quickly.
It is crucial that the escalating emergency in Europe does not give rise to vaccine protectionism, in which stock is withheld and hoarded to serve only local populations. The International Chamber of Commerce has predicted that such selfishness may cost the global economic system 9.2 trillion USD and will of course have a tragic impact on public health. Rather than engaging in futile disputes, the EU should instead work together with the drug companies to rectify the situation.
By Hortense Comon
Sector Head: Hermione Scott