COVID-19: Three reasons why the EU is so angry with AstraZeneca

·3-min read

Vaccines are the key to the end of this crisis. But they have also become the catalyst for a huge swirl of acrimony.

The European Union has accused AstraZeneca of breaking its contract by not supplying enough vaccine doses.

The company blames production delays.

The EU is not satisfied with the answer, not least because there is currently no similar threat hanging over the supply of vaccines to the UK.

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So why is the EU so angry?

Well, it comes down to three main reasons.

Firstly, the European Union maintains it provided money up-front to AstraZeneca so the company could beef up its production capacity, precisely to avoid these sorts of problems.

Secondly, it is furious about the idea that the UK is getting preferential treatment.

"There is no hierarchy," said the European Health Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, who also rejected outright the idea that the UK was being rewarded for signing a contract earlier.

"We reject the idea of first come, first served. That might work at the local butchers but not in this contract. Vaccine developers have a moral, societal and contractual responsibility."

And then finally, the EU is angry for the simple reason that all this plays into the idea that Europe's approach to vaccination has been stuttering and sluggish, particularly in contrast to the UK.

It's reckoned that about 11% of the UK population has now been vaccinated. The best-performing country in the whole EU is Malta, with about 5% of the population vaccinated.

Chris Fearne is Malta's health minister, and also its deputy prime minister. When we spoke, he told me that "there is a race but it's not against one another but against the virus".

"Time is important, the numbers we vaccinate are important, but we need to do this together.

"I'm a strong advocate for vaccine solidarity. We are in this together, fighting the virus not each other. And while there is a pandemic somewhere there is a pandemic everywhere."

And yet, just as his country, and his continent, invest in the vaccine that offers hope of defeating the virus, so this row emerges with AstraZeneca.

Watch: How does the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK compare with other countries?

Mr Fearne's answer is measured. His focus remains on the success of nations joining together to procure medicine, a model he expects to see replicated in years to come.

"The question of transparency is a hot issue when it comes to pharmaceutical products. For the first time ever, the member states have procured a vaccine and this is something which is a breakthrough but something, which will serve in the future - for drugs that treat cancers, for therapies and so on.

"We need to get over this infantile quarrelling over who reaches targets first. We are all citizens and we all want the best public health - and we have a fantastic situation by having a vaccine after such a short period of time."

The same across the EU, perhaps, but the comparison with the UK seems stark. He puts some of that difference down to different approaches.

"We have chosen different models of vaccinating our population.

"The UK used all the doses as first doses, which will delay the second dose for months. We have chosen different and kept second doses in reserve. That's up to the UK - we have stuck to what the manufacturers recommend."

He said he is thrilled that the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, whose own vaccine project fell flat, will now be producing vaccines on behalf of Pfizer.

From him, there is a long-term sense of confidence. In Brussels, and in the short term, the mood remains clouded by anger.

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