Covid: What’s the problem with the EU vaccine rollout?

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French Health Minister Olivier Veran

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The European Union has been criticised for the slow pace of coronavirus vaccinations in its member states.

Less than 12% of the EU’s population is reported to have received the vaccine, compared with nearly 40% in the UK.

What happened with the EU vaccine rollout?

In June 2020, all 27 member states joined up to a scheme giving the EU central responsibility for buying vaccines.

The EU signed a deal for 300 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December, but there were early problems with production.

Distribution of the Moderna vaccine also ran into problems, with Italy and France complaining they had received fewer doses than expected.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca said the fact that EU contracts were signed later than with the UK caused problems with supplying their vaccine.

In February, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the EU’s vaccine failures, saying: “We were late to authorise. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.”

The EU has reached agreements to buy three other vaccines, once they pass clinical trials – Sanofi-GSK, Johnson & Johnson and CureVac.

Chart showing the number of doses administered in the UK, US, EU, China and Russia

Issues with AstraZeneca

In January, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for all age groups, but a number of EU countries initially refused to recommend its use for people over 65.

France and Germany eventually revised their stance and approved the vaccine for people aged 65-74 at the beginning of March.

However, they were among 13 European countries who paused the AstraZeneca rollout again in March, after reports that a small number of people developed blood clots after receiving the jab.

They restarted it after the EMA said there was no evidence that the vaccine caused the clots. However, the French authorities say only people aged 55 and over should get the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.

The headlines surrounding AstraZeneca may have led people to be reluctant about taking the jab. Some countries are reporting that as many as half of the doses delivered to them are currently unused.

Export controls

Fears that vaccines produced in the EU weren’t being distributed more quickly there, led to the introduction of export controls at the end of January.

The EU threatened to apply the controls to vaccines moving between the Republic of Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland (in the UK), but later reversed this decision after widespread criticism that it went against the Brexit deal.

Controls were used for the first time on 4 March, when Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia.

Map showing where the vaccines are made: Oxford in the UK and Pfizer in Belgium

Can EU states make their own deals?

Member states are allowed to strike separate deals with vaccine makers which have not signed agreements with the EU.

Hungary bought two million doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, rolling it out in February. It also granted approval to a Chinese vaccine, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban receiving the jab.

Slovakia has purchased the Russian jab and the Czech Republic is said to be considering buying it too.

Austria and Denmark have announced they are joining forces with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines against mutations of the coronavirus.

Under the terms of the EU scheme, member states are not supposed to strike deals with any vaccine manufacturer with whom the EU already has an agreement.

However, the German government signed its own side-deal with Pfizer for 30 million extra doses in September.

In January, the European Commission refused to say whether this had broken the terms of the EU scheme.

Did the UK roll out vaccines quicker because of Brexit?

The UK approved the Pfizer vaccine in November, nearly three weeks before the EU regulators.

The government claimed that being outside the EU allowed it to be more nimble in this area.

However, the UK’s approval of the jab would have been permitted anyway under EU law – a point made by the head of the UK medicines regulator.

Chart shows more than 27m vaccines doses have been given

The UK could have joined the EU vaccine scheme last year while it was still in a transition phase with the EU, but it chose not to.

If it had, the UK might not have been able to do as many deals with vaccine companies.

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