EU vaccine wait nearly over, but what took so long?

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By Christopher Pitchers
EU vaccine wait nearly over, but what took so long?
Copyright  Frank Augstein/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

With Europe gripped by the second wave of COVID-19, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered a glimmer of hope Thursday, announcing that vaccinations will begin on December 27th.

The plan is for every EU country to receive vaccine deliveries on the same day, but after that - it will be up to the national governments to determine how fast they can be delivered.

The news has been welcomed by Member States, but the path to a post-Christmas roll-out day has been criticised by many for taking too long, with countries like the UK, US and Canada already having started their vaccination programmes.

So why is this? Why has Europe been made to wait when other major Western players are pressing ahead with their own programmes?

The American and British approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been given under emergency use provisions, essentially meaning that it is an unlicensed product allowed for temporary use because of the pandemic.

The European Medicines Agency's (EMA) approach to COVID-19 vaccines, however, is quite similar to the normal licensing procedure, except that it is fast-tracked slightly. The companies must still give follow-up data and renewal will be needed following one year.

The organisation's fast-tracked approval process has reduced the period for the COVID-19 vaccine from 210 days to less than 150 but hasn't allowed for it as an unlicensed, temporary product, like in the UK and US.

But according to Germany's Health Minister, Jens Spahn, it was a question of solidarity, rather than speed.

"Yes, France, Germany, and the Netherlands could have undoubtedly procured, promoted and approved the vaccine on our own," he told the Bundestag on Wednesday.

"But we made a very conscious decision to go down this path together at European level, that we are stronger together. This is true in this pandemic, in everyday life, in taking care of each other, but it is also true in European solidarity.

"We are procuring this vaccine together so that all 27 have it available at the same time. We are jointly promoting the development and we are also making a joint approval in the best European spirit."

The approach differs significantly from that of Russia's, which began rolling out its very own vaccine before large scale trials were finished and conclusive data was readily available.

The EMA will be hoping that its more cautious approach pays off, however, after severe allergic reactions were reported in two British people and one American receiving the shots.

The organisation will also be asking companies to deliver data on the safety of vaccines and the side effects every month, rather than every six months, due to the lack of long-term safety data available.