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Europe's week: EU's vaccine row with AstraZeneca dominates

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A cyclist, wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, rides a bicycle past the EU headquarters in Brussels
A cyclist, wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, rides a bicycle past the EU headquarters in Brussels   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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It's fair to say that the final week of January 2021 didn't go as originally intended for the European Commission.

The week before, AstraZeneca said there would be a 60% shortfall in its COVID-19 vaccine supplies to the EU this quarter, claiming that contractual delivery figures were “targets” rather than a firm commitment.

The company blamed production problems at its site in Belgium for the reason to cut its planned supplies.

It has four sites in Europe including two in the UK.

Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said that given the short time-scale between the vaccine's creation, production and anticipated delivery, "glitches" or "scale-up problems" are to be expected -- and indeed were experienced in the UK and the US.

"But the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So, with the UK, we have had an extra three months to fix all the glitches we experienced," Soriot said in an interview published in Italy's la Repubblica newspaper.

Unsurprisingly, the Commission was not happy, with Stella Kyriakides, EU Health Commissioner accusing the pharmaceutical giant of breaching its contract with the bloc.

"Let me be crystal clear: the 27 European Union member states are united that AstraZeneca needs to deliver on its commitments in our agreements," Kyriakides said.

"The view that the company is not obliged to deliver because we signed a best effort agreement (BEA) is neither correct nor is it acceptable. (…) Not being able to ensure manufacturing capacity is against the letter and the spirit of our agreement. We reject the logic of first come, first served."

And the anger wasn't just reserved by the Commission.

In an interview with Euronews, German MEP and trained medical doctor Peter Liese raised the prospect of a possible vaccine trade war.

"For five weeks now the BioNTech vaccine that is only produced in Europe, that has been developed with the aid of the German state and European Union money, is shipped to the United Kingdom," said Liese.

"So people in the United Kingdom are vaccinated with a very good vaccine that is produced in Europe, supported by European money. If there is anyone thinking that European citizens would accept that we give this high-quality vaccine to the UK and would accept to be treated as second class by UK based company.

"I think the only consequence can be to immediately stop the export of the BioNTech vaccine and then we are in the middle of a trade war. So, the company and the UK better think twice."

The EU decisively shooting from the hip, announced a new regulation controlling the export of coronavirus vaccines manufactured in the bloc, aimed at keeping doses made in Europe, for Europe.

And amid all of this, the vaccine that sparked the bitter dispute was only just approved by the European Medicines Agency on Friday.

But there was a glimmer of hope during a downright awful week for the Commission.

Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, of which the EU plans to buy up to 400 million doses, was found to be around 66% effective in its global trial, the company said, requiring only one jab per person.

Juncker on vaccines

Former Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, was less critical of the current administration's handling of the vaccine process, however.

In an exclusive interview with Euronews, he said that it is a great achievement that we even have a vaccine just one year on from the beginning of the pandemic.

"I have to say that one year ago in January or February 2020, nobody thought that we would have this vaccine," Juncker explained.

"And it's a major success for European and international scientific research and progress. I do think that the Commission did well, not knowing in what detail it was happening. I think it was the right choice to be made that the European Commission was asked to order this vaccine in the name of the 27, but now we are facing problems of the production and of distribution."

He also told Euronews that there is no risk of vaccine nationalism from the EU's side.

"As far as the European Union is concerned, I don't see this risk, this national vaccination monopoly some people in different member states are advocating. I don't think that this will be the case. I'm observing that the production and the distribution of the vaccines are dealt with in a different way between the European Union and Britain, but more particularly, I do think that these things will come back to order in the next couple of weeks. I'm not pessimistic about that."