Vaccines: a European perspective

26 Mar 2021

Tensions over vaccines, specifically AstraZeneca, in Europe remains high but is it really all political?

DRD Partner in Brussels, Tamlin Vickers, shares his views.

It’s all about AstraZeneca

Amidst the rising EU-UK tensions over vaccines in recent days, it is worth remembering that the EU’s beef is – and has always been – primarily with AstraZeneca and not with the UK. In talking tough on export restrictions, the European Commission’s aim has been to put AstraZeneca under sufficient pressure to persuade it to prioritise its contractual obligations with the EU. Neither the Commission nor most EU member states want to actually follow through on the threats (France and Italy are the notable exceptions – quelle surprise there).

The majority are aware of the damage it would do to the EU’s reputation as a champion of free trade, and it is well-understood that the reason many pharmaceutical companies decided to set up their manufacturing plants in the EU in the first place was because of an expectation that imports and exports would be able to operate unhindered. If companies – pharmaceutical ones and others – were no longer able to rely on such a pro-market approach, the attractiveness of the EU as a site of manufacturing and R&D investment would be undermined. The above context helps to explain that while the Commission has increased its powers to monitor and potentially block vaccine exports, it has stopped short of imposing an outright ban.

Another important element to understand is that there is a palpable anger towards AstraZeneca in Europe. This has led to an ugly and at times self-defeating discourse against the company by both national and EU-level politicians. Perhaps the prime example of this was President Macron’s comment that the AstraZeneca vaccine was ‘quasi-ineffective among over-65s’, which was not only untrue but also served to exacerbate existing vaccine hesitancy in France and elsewhere. It should also be said that AstraZeneca has brought much of the opprobrium on itself through a series of unforced errors, such as its submissions of incomplete trial data and poor comms effort.

While it is fair to accuse European politicians of mounting a politically-motivated campaign against AstraZeneca, it would be inaccurate to describe (as many commentators in the UK have done) the decisions by European regulators, such as to delay approval of – and subsequently to suspend – the vaccine, as political. In fact, the reverse is true: the German government was heavily criticised by the press and public for following the regulator’s recommendation to suspend the vaccine earlier this month. The legitimate criticism of European regulators is in my view that they operate within a culture of extreme risk aversion and reliance on overly-bureaucratic process; the antithesis of politicisation.

What does this mean for the EU-UK relations?

The elevation of this ugly spat into an EU-UK one has been accelerated by Brexit and the deterioration of bilateral relations more generally, without which the UK would not have become such a convenient scapegoat for European countries struggling with their vaccination rollouts. And let’s be clear, the EU is in a desperate situation on this front: vaccinations are progressing sluggishly and infections are rising fast. As a result, governments have been forced to reintroduce severe restrictions, to the frustration of citizens who read daily about the easing of restrictions in the UK and elsewhere.

Their anger has been directed at national politicians, who have sought to deflect it towards the European Commission, which in turn has directed it towards AstraZeneca. As the company has been (inaccurately) portrayed as having met the entirety of its delivery schedule with the UK (AstraZeneca has in fact fallen well short of its commitments to the UK too), the gripes with the company have understandably morphed into gripes with the UK.

The situation has been aggravated by the fact that Britain has been consistently portrayed by much of the European press over the past few years as a kind of failed state run by a populist mini-Trump; and the efficient rollouts in the UK and US have been at odds with the general (and largely correct) view that the pandemic has been mismanaged by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries. This well-established narrative has made it difficult for many Europeans to comprehend how the UK might be doing better on its vaccine rollout.

Discussions between the Commission and the UK government are ongoing, with Tim Barrow (formerly the UK’s most senior diplomat in Brussels and someone with a reasonably good reputation in the city) conducting the negotiations for the UK. A deal is expected in the coming days on how to apportion AstraZeneca supplies in the near-term; the EU hopes the UK will agree to forego a batch of several million doses at AstraZeneca’s Halix plant in the Netherlands which had been due to be shipped to the UK. There is also some hope that the deal might include a wider ongoing commitment to coordinate more closely and bring to bear the collective strengths of both sides to ensure a sustained increase in vaccines to benefit everyone over the coming months and years.

My sense is that the likelihood of such a deal being agreed remains in the balance. If the EU were to limit the discussion to AstraZeneca supplies, a deal will likely happen. If, however, the Commission brings the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine into the discussion, the chances of a deal diminish significantly, and we would then be on the road to an acrimonious tit-for-tat bilateral battle which would benefit no one. The days ahead could have an enormous impact on EU-UK relations for years to come.

Hammer-blow to Europe’s tourism sector

Finally, let us bear in mind that the squeeze on supplies is a short-term one: by the beginning of May, there will be significant increases in deliveries, which will be sustained throughout the following months. By mid-to-late summer it’s possible that we’ll see a glut of vaccines in Europe, with the principal challenge then being a logistical one relating to how quickly the health systems can administer the plentiful supplies. This will do much to dampen bilateral tensions. However, it will likely come too late to rescue Europe’s summer tourist season, bringing enormous damage to the sector, particularly in southern countries which had until recently been banking on being able to open up fully.

PHOTO credit:  Piroschka van de Wouw/EPA