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Von der Leyen defends EU vaccine strategy but admits 'mistakes were made' over Article 16

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Presindet von der Leyen told MEPs that the EU was "too optimistic about mass production."
Presindet von der Leyen told MEPs that the EU was "too optimistic about mass production."   -   Copyright  Johanna Geron/AP
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Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has defended the EU's common vaccine strategy as the correct thing to do in the name of European solidarity, but admitted mistakes in its planning and roll-out.

"I hate to imagine what it would have meant if a few large Member States had secured vaccine and the rest had come away empty-handed. What that would have meant for our internal market and for the unity of Europe!" said von der Leyen on Wednesday morning, speaking before the European Parliament.

"It would be economic nonsense. And it would be the end of our community."

The speech was the first time the president addressed the whole European Parliament since last month's row over vaccine supplies, when the Commission inflamed political sensitivities by proposing export controls from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland. Although the plan was quickly withdrawn, it was considered a fiasco and provoked immediate condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast.

"The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision. And I deeply regret that," von der Leyen admitted. "But in the end, we got it right. And I can reassure you that my Commission will do its utmost to protect the peace in Northern Ireland."

The president sought to clarify that the export transparency mechanism will not affect companies "that are honouring their contracts with the EU" and that there a numerous exemptions in place, including the Western Balkans and the 92 low-income countries covered by the COVAX scheme.

Von der Leyen began her speech in her native German, noting the progress that COVID-19 vaccination campaigns have made across the EU, particularly in care homes and among medical staff.

"We will work as hard as we can to achieve our goal of having 70% of the adult population in Europe vaccinated by the end of summer," she vowed.

The president, who has faced the harshest criticism of her tenure over the vaccine distribution, appeared to partly accept the blame for the disappointing roll-out, saying that the EU institutions and the members states underestimated the difficulty of mass production.

"We were late for admission. We were too optimistic about mass production. And maybe we were too sure that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time."

"It normally takes five to ten years to produce a new vaccine. We did it in ten months. It is a great scientific achievement," she added.

The President told MEPs that Europe has invested "billions of euros in capacities in advance" and that the Commission had urged members states to plan their vaccine roll-out.

Von der Leyen also defended the authorisation process of the European Medicines Agency, which has been under fire for acting slower than its counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom.

"There is no compromise when it comes to injecting a biologically active substance into a healthy person," she said. "That extra time is a critical investment for trust and security."

However, the president conceded that the sharing of clinical trial data with EMA needs to be improved and announced that Stella Kyriakides, the EU's Health Commissioner, will work on a regulatory framework "to allow the EMA to review vaccines as quickly as possible."

At the end of her speech, the president struck a more sombre tone, warning against the uncertainty and danger of new coronavirus variants.

"We do not yet have the full picture when it comes to the effectiveness of treatments and vaccines on new strains. But we do know these variants will continue to emerge. And we do know that we need to anticipate and prepare immediately."

Von der Leyen sounded the alarm about the need to boost the production and coordinate the supply of key medical ingredients, which are necessary to manufacture the new mRNA-vaccines, like the one being made by Pfizer and BioNTech. She said that this will be the core task of the Health Emergency Response Authority (HERA) that the Commission will set up this year.

"We will only meet this challenge if we stick together. Our common enemy is the virus," she concluded.