(CN) — European Union regulators on Wednesday approved the use of a second vaccine against the novel coronavirus, this one manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Moderna, but the announcement will do little to quiet rows erupting across Europe over a sluggish rollout of vaccinations.
With the EU beginning to fall behind other parts of the world in inoculating its populations, the new year has ushered in a bout of nasty finger-pointing in European politics.
In its defense, EU officials say they have taken a safety-first approach in approving vaccines and distributing them to Europeans, many of whom are skeptical about vaccines, according to a recent Ipsos-World Economic Forum survey.
“What has mattered right from the outset has been to make sure that the vaccines were safe and effective,” said Eric Mamer, the European Commission's chief spokesman, at a testy news conference on Wednesday in Brussels where he defended the EU's vaccination strategy and the comparatively slow pace of vaccine approval by the European Medicines Agency, also known as the EMA.
“It's somewhat paradoxical that given this was the major concern that we had throughout the summer,” he said, “now all of a sudden people are turning around and saying: 'Well, how is it that the EMA is two or three weeks longer in carrying out its analyses than other agencies [around the world]?”
He added: “We need citizens to be confident about the procedures used by the EMA – that is a crucial factor, there has to be trust in that. We need to focus more on that and a bit less on whether it's taken two weeks more or two weeks less here than anywhere else.”
Nonetheless, this row over vaccines doesn't seem likely to disappear any time soon. And questions aren't just arising over the EU's slow regulatory procedures. Accusations are emerging that vaccine purchases involved politics and backroom deals. Also, the commission is facing criticism for not purchasing more of the vaccines now leading the race against the virus, the RNA-based vaccines developed by the U.S. companies Pfizer and Moderna.
“Transparency and sound, factual communications are the best medicine, not only against conspiracy theories, but also to build trust in the EU institutions,” said Dacian Ciolos, the leader of Renew Europe, a group of liberals in the European Parliament, on Wednesday in calling for EU agencies to divulge more information about how vaccines are purchased and approved.
“It is very important that citizens have clarity not only on the efficiency and deployment of the vaccine but also on the approval process, on when they can realistically expect to get it and in what conditions,” he said.
Across Europe, the politics of vaccines are causing tensions.
In France, only 5,000 people have been vaccinated since Christmas, giving rise to new criticism of French President Emmanuel Macron's handling of the pandemic. In response, he's pushing his government to go faster despite widespread vaccine skepticism in France. Only 40% of French told the Ipsos pollsters they would take a vaccine against the virus, the lowest percentage of any nation surveyed.
Germany, Europe's powerhouse, is once again giving its neighbors reasons to distrust it after it emerged that it allegedly negotiated a deal behind the backs of other EU nations with Pfizer-BioNTech for 30 million vaccine doses for its own use.
Domestically in Germany, the slow rollout of vaccines is testing the abilities of Jens Spahn, the 40-year-old health minister and potential successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is set to retire from politics after elections this fall. His rivals in that succession battle are blaming him for Germany's slow pace and in turn he's blamed the European Commission. Still, in the EU, Germany is leading the way with more than 367,000 people vaccinated, about 100,000 more than Italy, which has given out the second highest number of shots.