Saturday, 16 Oct 2021

Covid 19 coronavirus: European Commission hits out at EU nations for hoarding vaccines

The European Commission on Tuesday attacked EU governments for hoarding unused coronavirus vaccines as a political crisis threatened to engulf Angela Merkel’s government over Germany’s decision to suspend use of the AstraZeneca jab.

The rare rebuke from Brussels came after Germany, France, Italy and Spain joined 11 other EU nations in halting the rollout of the Oxford vaccine over blood clot fears until the results of a European Medicines Agency (EMA) investigation, expected tomorrow.

“Even with the immense and regrettable challenges around production capacity and deliveries, there are reports of unused reservoirs of vaccines across the European Union,” Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said after a virtual meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels.

“We see the proportions of available vaccine doses distributed range from 50 to 100 per cent across member states.”

EU member states have received 62.2 million vaccines under the joint procurement scheme run by Brussels and administered 77 per cent of those – about 48 million shots. About 14.8 million AstraZeneca vaccines have been delivered to EU countries. Less than half – 7.3 million – have been used.

Emer Cooke, the executive director of the EMA, said there was “no indication” at present that AstraZeneca vaccines caused blood clots, despite reports of deaths in Europe.

She said the Pfizer and Moderna jabs – which, like the Oxford one, are EMA approved – appeared to be linked to similar numbers of blood clots as the suspended AstraZeneca vaccine.

“We are looking at adverse events associated with all vaccines,” Cooke said after newspaper reports in the US linking the other vaccines to thrombosis.

Sweden and Portugal became the latest EU countries to pause use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Tuesday, despite the EMA and World Health Organisation saying the jab was safe and the EU lagging far behind Britain in its vaccination programme.

The British-Swedish company is at loggerheads with the EU over supply shortfalls. AstraZeneca told the commission on Saturday there would be a 60 million dose shortfall in its planned deliveries to the EU by the end of March.

There was fury in Berlin at the AstraZeneca suspension. Germany’s national disease centre warned that the country is now in a third wave and facing an exponential rise in cases that could see it break previous records by Easter.

Merkel’s closest ally, the Bavarian regional leader, Markus Soder, broke ranks with the chancellor and told German television he was ready to take the vaccine “immediately”. Her main coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD) publicly condemned the decision as a “U-turn” that suggested the government has “no clear policy”.

One senior SPD politician said the move was a disaster and called on Jens Spahn, the health minister, to resign as Germany prepares for September elections for a successor to Merkel.

The opposition Free Democrat Party said Merkel’s government had “unnecessarily endangered human lives”.

“The bottom line, sadly, is that this good and effective vaccine is not being accepted by the public in many countries because of the row and the suspension,” said Frank Ulrich Montgomery, the German head of the World Medical Association.

The Institute for the German Economy warned that suspending use of the vaccine for just one week could cost the economy €2 billion ($3.3b).

Cooke denied that the EMA was under pressure from powerful EU governments, telling reporters: “I want to firmly put on record that our evaluation is guided by science and independence and nothing but.”

Agnes Pannier-Runacher, France’s industry minister, said AstraZeneca’s CEO was in the “hot seat” over the delivery delays but added that the EMA investigation was necessary to stop “mistrust” in the vaccine.

But Nicola Magrini, the director-general of Italy’s medicines agency, said the decision in Italy was political. “We got to the point of a suspension because several European countries, including Germany and France, preferred to interrupt vaccinations – to put them on hold to carry out checks. The choice is a political one,” he told La Repubblica newspaper.

Belgium and Poland are pressing ahead with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Michal Dworczyk, the Polish prime minister’s chief of staff, told the Polish Press Agency: “In my opinion, it is possible that we are dealing with a planned disinformation campaign and a brutal fight of medical companies.”

Frank Vandenbroucke, the Belgian health minister, said the suspensions were “irresponsible” in the midst of the pandemic. “We are never going to get Europe vaccinated like this. Then we’re going to get a third, fourth, fifth wave. We have to be careful with those chain reactions,” he said.

Marc von Ranst, Belgium’s leading virologist, said stopping the vaccinations would have meant Covid hospital admissions, long-term organ damage and deaths.

According to AstraZeneca, about 17 million people in the EU and the UK have received a dose of the vaccine, with fewer than 40 cases of blood clots reported to date.

AstraZeneca has promised 100 million doses in the first half of 2021 but is now accused of breaching its contract by the EU, which it denies.

The new delivery target, which is 10 million less than a previous March pledge of 40 million doses, hinges on whether the Netherlands grants regulatory approval to a factory in the country.

Brussels has demanded that UK-manufactured jabs make up the shortfall and introducing rules allowing EU countries to block vaccine exports.

In January, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said the AstraZeneca jab was “quasi-ineffective” in the over-65s after false reports in the German media claiming it was just 8 per cent effective in the elderly, believed to have hit take-up of the vaccine on the continent.

A string of EU countries ignored EMA advice and imposed age limits on the use of the jab before later clearing it for the elderly.

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