(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.
On Wednesday, Mamer insisted those vaccine doses Germany negotiated will be part of the 300 million doses the EU has secured from Pfizer and BioNTech, a German company whose own boss, Dr. Ugur Sahin, caused a stir over the weekend by telling the German news magazine Der Spiegel that the EU messed up by not pre-ordering more of his company’s vaccine doses.
“Apparently there was this impression: we will get enough, it won’t get that bad, we have this under control. I was surprised by that,” he told the magazine.
In Latvia, the health minister resigned Tuesday over accusations that she botched her nation’s vaccination plan. The minister, Ilze Vinkele, said she was being used by the prime minister as a scapegoat. About 3,000 people have been vaccinated in Latvia.
Meanwhile, in Poland, another kind of scandal has erupted. It’s actually one of the European nations where vaccinations are taking place at a good clip with more than 92,000 shots already administered. But an investigation has been opened after high-profile public figures, including actors and politicians, reportedly got shots when only health workers are eligible for them.
For now, though, much of the blame – rightly or wrongly – over the slow pace of vaccinations is directed at the European Commission, the EU’s executive body.
After the coronavirus broke out across Europe last March, the EU’s 27 member states decided during the summer to jointly purchase vaccines, which were just beginning to be concocted. In doing so, the EU states gave the commission the task of leading the vaccine purchases.
Hedging its bets, the commission decided to pre-order huge volumes of vaccines from six different suppliers: CureVac, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK and Moderna. In all, the commission says it has ordered about 2 billion doses from these companies, which in theory is enough to cover the entire EU population of 445 million people.
Shortly before Christmas, the EMA approved its first vaccine, the Pfizer-BioNTech product based on a method using RNA, a molecule in human cells, which had not until now been tested on a mass population. These vaccines don’t contain any coronavirus, and therefore cannot cause infection, but rely on a piece of genetic code to tell immune systems to recognize the spike protein on the surface of the virus and attack it. But a major drawback is that the vaccines need to be stored and transported in dry ice, making it quite expensive.
But the EU’s approval for the vaccine came about three weeks after the U.K. greenlit its use and about two weeks after the United States did the same.
Wednesday’s Moderna approval by EMA comes about three weeks after the U.S. approved that vaccine. The Moderna vaccine is another RNA-based product. And last week, the U.K. beat the EU again as it began vaccinations with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which relies on a more common vaccine method and doesn’t need to be stored at ultralow temperatures.
In Great Britain, pro-Brexit politicians, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are crowing over their nation’s lead over the EU in the vaccination race and saying it proves that the U.K.’s exit from the bloc was the right move.
The EU’s lag is giving rise to fears that Europe will also fall behind in its effort to overcome a virus that has left more than 356,000 people dead in the EU and crippled its economies.
Since the EU started vaccinations with the Pfizer-BioNTech antidote shortly after Christmas, more than 964,000 people have received shots against the virus in the EU, or about 0.2% of the EU’s population, according to publicly available figures collected by Our World In Data, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Oxford.
By comparison, the United States has vaccinated about 4.8 million people, China about 4.5 million, Israel 1.4 million, the U.K. 1 million and Russia about 800,000. China and Russia jumped ahead of other nations and approved homegrown vaccines last summer, raising eyebrows from experts who said their vaccines had not been properly tested.
There’s a major difference in the EU’s regulatory process. Unlike the U.K. and the U.S., the EU is not granting approval to vaccines on an emergency basis but instead issuing so-called conditional marketing authorization. By issuing this license, the EU may be taking longer to approve vaccines but it can hold vaccine manufacturers liable for unforeseen adverse reactions from their products whereas the U.K. is waiving that right by granting emergency approvals.
Mamer, the commission spokesman, said the decision to purchase six different vaccines was done at a time when it was unclear which ones were going to be successful first.
“We always knew it was going to be complex. That is why the EU decided to sign so many contracts,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to come back afterwards and say you should have ordered more.”
Nonetheless, he said EU citizens can feel confident that there will be enough vaccines. “The portfolio we have built is an impressive portfolio and it will deliver the results.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.