As vaccines begin to roll out across Europe and the rest of the world, they bring with them hope for an alleviation to the health, economic and social crises brought about by COVID-19. No surprise, then, that demand for vaccines has caused international competition and even conflict, most notably between the United Kingdom and the European Union from which it recently departed. But while the UK emerges as a global leader in its inoculation program, EU states are faced with severely constrained supply. In this opinion article Byron Murphy looks at the role of the European Commission in the bloc’s procurement process and shares an Irish perspective on the rocky start to the Union’s new relationship with Britain.
Murphy’s Law in action
In late 2019, it seemed the uncertainty of Brexit was felt every bit as strongly in Ireland as it was in the United Kingdom. Radio adverts told us to get our businesses “Brexit ready”, but nobody knew what that meant. The Northern Ireland Protocol avoided a physical border in the middle of the island, but how that would affect external supply routes to the North was anyone’s guess. In the Republic our dairy farmers were so concerned at the prospect of tariffs that they had constructed mozzarella factories to diversify away from the cheddar traditionally shipped to Britain. In case no deal was reached, at least we could ship that to China where the growing middle class is coming to appreciate pizza, or to Korea where it is used in cheese-stuffed rice cakes – a delicacy for those who seek both diabetes and heart disease but lack the time to commit to either one.
It was amid this chaos that the pandemic arrived. Brexit and the formalities surrounding it took an immediate back seat to the enormous implications of COVID-19. The United Kingdom has suffered more than almost any other nation, losing over 110,000 lives and seeing one of the worst economic downturns in the developed world. Much blame is levelled at the feet of Westminster for what has often appeared to be “flip-flopping”, “U-turning” or any synonym for the type of uncertainty which damages public health and the economy in equal measure. Boris Johnson certainly didn’t get off to the best start, happily declaring he shook hands with “everybody” at a hospital known to care for COVID patients, before falling seriously ill with the virus shortly thereafter. A Christmas miracle saw the EU and UK come to terms on a last-minute trade deal on the 24th of December, but the virus and responses to it have put a new perspective on what seemed to be the most important issue facing us just one year ago.
A day late, a euro short
When looking at the numbers, nobody can claim the United Kingdom has excelled in its response to the pandemic. However, there was only ever one clear way out of this nightmare: the promise of vaccines – invented at record pace, brought through the necessary trials, approved by regulatory bodies, produced at unprecedented scale and fast-tracked through an unimaginably critical supply chain. In this regard the UK’s primacy can not be denied. To begin with, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has been a beacon of hope since early in the summer of 2020. With reports promising efficacy in the 90 percent range and no demanding storage requirements, optimism was high that this vaccine would hit the market in early 2021. Indeed, the UK’s MHRA approved it for use on the 30th of December and the EU followed almost exactly a month later. Oxford and AstraZeneca produce and offer their vaccine at cost price, much cheaper than any other COVID vaccine available in Europe.
Far from resting on this success, Westminster ensured it had covered all its bases with orders signed for 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, 17 million of Moderna’s, 60 million of Novavax’ and many others, should any particular candidate do better in ramping up production. This has made the United Kingdom a leader worldwide in vaccination. With well over 12 million people vaccinated as of February 9th, the UK finds itself only behind Israel and the United Arab Emirates in the percentage of the population receiving their first jab. Vaccination began on the 8th of December, and has steadily risen above 300,000 doses per day across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The European Union has not fared as well. Acting as a bloc and awaiting the European Medicines Agency’s approval it was not until December 21st that the first vaccine, Pfizer’s, was rubber stamped and the first batches could be sent to recipients – three weeks after it had been approved in Britain. But this was where the trouble only began. Pfizer notified the EU that its manufacturing would be slower than promised, as expansion of its plant in Belgium would mean greater capacity later in the year at the cost of reduced output in the present. Moderna followed suit, and the Oxford jab suddenly became the subject of immense conflict. The European Commission was (and very much still is) upset that the UK was receiving preferential treatment, in particular that the UK’s AstraZeneca production facility would not supply the EU. A very public row has ensued, one which has not left the EU Commission in a good light as details of its procurement campaign become known.
In June 2020, around the same time the UK was negotiating its vaccine supply with AstraZeneca, an “Inclusive Vaccine Alliance” consisting of Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands had struck a deal on broadly the same terms for 400 million doses. Other European nations were miffed by this move – notably the Belgians – so the European Commission decided it would negotiate for the entire bloc instead. The end result was a successful arrangement with AstraZeneca over two months later on worse terms than the French, Germans, Italians and Dutch had managed. AstraZeneca would make “best reasonable efforts” to deliver vaccines to the EU, but there were no set schedules or priorities for the mainlanders. The UK had acted swiftly, acted decisively, and eaten the EU’s lunch.
Worryingly, this particular trend shows no sign of reversing. The UK has already agreed to purchase 100 million vaccines from French biotech firm Valneva, another promising candidate currently in trials and sharing provisionally optimistic results. The European Commission? Currently in advanced discussions, with no orders placed. So desperate is the situation that German officials are exploring the possibility of approving Chinese or Russian vaccines, much like Hungary did in January.
Si vis pacem vaccini, para bellum vaccini
The European Commission clearly blundered the bloc’s vaccine procurement strategy, but member states have been understanding for the most part. These are unprecedented times and mistakes can happen, especially when competition for this liquid gold is so fierce. Nonetheless the EC had lost face, so when AstraZeneca informed them they would receive less than half the doses anticipated in the first quarter its patience had finally worn thin. Belgian regulators conducted an inspection of the AstraZeneca plant located there, legal action was threatened by the Commission against AstraZeneca and checks on vaccine exports were proposed to block vaccines passing from the EU to the UK.
Tensions ran high throughout January, reaching fever pitch on the evening of the 29th when the European Commission announced it would be implementing these export controls. As part of this it also invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, requiring a physical border presence between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to check vaccine shipments and ensure they do not leave the EU. This move was immediately condemned by all parties affected: the British government, the Irish government, the Northern Irish government as well as its opposition – agents which have never agreed on the color of the sky were all certain this was a terrible decision. The Good Friday Agreement which negotiated peace between the North and the Republic specifically acknowledges the commitment of both sides to avoid a hard border. This was a topic of intense debate during Brexit negotiations and to have this imposed by the Commission over a vaccine row was seen as completely unacceptable. Worse still, the Commission did not give any of the parties notice of this decision, not even its own member state which would be charged with implementing this border presence.
One EU diplomat told the BBC: “Over and again, I've repeated to the press the importance and the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland and how we in the EU appreciated and respected the importance of getting the Brexit deal right. And what do we look like now? This was a disaster. It plays into the hands of EU-haters and UK opponents of the Brexit deal.” They are not wrong. The Commission quickly backtracked at the behest of the Irish government and others, but with no proper excuse given. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has come under intense scrutiny, both in Germany where Der Spiegel leapt at the opportunity for scathing critiques, and even in Ireland where she has previously enjoyed popularity from the majority who felt she and the Commission did protect the country’s interests during heated Brexit talks. For her part in the Article 16 crisis von der Leyen has blamed Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice President, “because he is in charge of trade.” Notwithstanding the fact it is von der Leyen’s signature on the order itself, it would hardly make the Irish any more comfortable to learn that one of her deputies could unilaterally impose a physical border upon them after a few glasses of wine on a Friday evening.
Since then the Oxford vaccine has been heavily scrutinized by European government officials. Germany’s public health agency, the Robert Koch Institute, advised against it saying there was “insufficient data currently available to ascertain how effective the vaccination is above 65 years”. The then-candidate vaccine did have an underrepresentation of older participants, a decision prompted by caution in April but now a key issue of contention. Many countries, Ireland and the Netherlands included, have put its use on pause for over 65s until satisfactory data can be made available. Just hours before the Oxford jab was approved by the European Medicines Agency, however, France’s Emmanual Macron said “everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.” This is not the case – the lack of data is the issue, not that the data suggests failings in older patients. If these comments are designed to reduce demand given the current lack of supply, as Oxford’s John Bell believes they are, this is outrageously irresponsible. When supply normalizes, the same people will no doubt complain about vaccine skepticism (which France already has quite a bit of) and disinformation before the year is out - having spread plenty of disinformation themselves.
Know when to fold them
Since Brexit became an inevitability in 2016 the temptation has often been to blame the British for everything – something we in Ireland have practiced far longer and still whole-heartedly endorse. But after mercifully backtracking on its impromptu decision to enforce a border on Ireland the European Commission is in a position it detests more than any other: having to admit it was wrong. Last year we were treated to numerous Guardian articles by leading EU academics on how Britain’s exit from the European Medicines Agency would leave the UK floundering in its vaccine response. Instead, the EU’s vaccine fiasco has brought truth to many of the criticisms Britain’s most notorious Eurosceptics have levelled at it. It was slow, waiting additional weeks to approve its first vaccine candidate. It subsumed the decision-making of member states by hijacking negotiations that had been a done deal, delaying the outcome and ending up with a worse result. It was vindictive, seeking to punish the UK for being “Johnny on the spot” and securing supply more effectively. It encroached upon sovereignty, invoking measures that would have violated the Good Friday Agreement without consulting the very member state concerned. It was not accountable, avoiding blame for missteps at every level. And of course, the body responsible cannot be held so by an electorate, because it doesn’t have one.
There is no need to enunciate the cost of delays when it comes to vaccination, we know it all too well. With infections and hospitalizations still at alarming rates, individuals struggling and national economies at breaking point, this is not the appropriate time for international conflict, brinkmanship or disinformation centred around vaccine supply. Nor is it the time to cast doubt on the efficacy of medicines without evidence to support it. Considering we all remain homebound for the foreseeable future, however, it may be a good time for self reflection. As quick as most of us are – myself included – to defend the European project, we have to acknowledge when it has blatantly erred. The European Commission was quick to commandeer responsibility in June, and should likewise accept accountability in February. If we have to eat crow, we may as well do it quickly. It won’t get any fresher.