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EU citizens are not getting vaccinated fast enough; and citizens in most of the world’s poorest countries are not getting vaccinated at all.
Those were two main frustrations as EU leaders confronted an array of troubling pandemic developments on Thursday during their first videoconference of 2021.
The video summit, convened by European Council President Charles Michel, was perceived initially as a sort of catch-up call among the 27 heads of state and government in their ongoing effort to coordinate responses to the pandemic, which has now killed more than 435,000 people in the EU, and more than 2 million worldwide.
Instead, the leaders found themselves grappling with an emergency that has shifted dramatically in recent weeks, including the emergence of several new, more contagious strains of the virus, and fears of production delays that could slow delivery of vaccines.
The new strains, along with a steep rise in the overall number of infections, have forced EU officials to come up with new ways to define the hardest-hit areas, by adding a category of “dark red” to the pandemic maps that previously showed green, orange and red zones. While Council members said they wanted to keep borders open, officials said that areas designated as dark red could be subjected to tougher restrictions on non-essential travel, and stricter testing requirements.
“We propose that a newly introduced category of dark red zone would show that in this zone the virus is circulating at a very high level,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference after the meeting.
During Thursday night’s call EU leaders pressed the national leaders to move quickly to increase capabilities for sequencing strains of the virus so that they can keep track of mutations that may prove resistant to the existing vaccines. “We hadn’t taken into account that these mutations would be more contagious than the virus that we already knew,” said one senior official who monitored the leaders’ conversation. “Tonight was also a wake-up call for member states,” the official said, “To say: ‘Hey, we need sufficient sequencing.’”
But some of the toughest conversations focused on the deep frustration and anxiety among the heads of state and government over not having larger amounts of vaccines, and a sense that the EU is moving more slowly than countries like the U.K. or Israel.
Those fears also reflected a reality that government officials are largely at the mercy of the pharmaceutical companies that are manufacturing the vaccines, and at various points anger boiled over at Pfizer, the U.S. firm that has partnered with Germany’s BioNTech but recently announced a need to slow production temporarily in order to refit its factory in Belgium.
“Leaders want vaccination to be accelerated,” Michel said at the closing news conference. “And in this respect commitments on deliveries made by companies must be respected.”
But while leaders broadly reaffirmed their support for the EU’s joint vaccine purchasing program, and its system of delivering doses to member countries on a pro-rata, population basis, some clamored for Brussels to do more to speed the delivery of doses, and potentially even shortcut some of the approval bureaucracy.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, for instance, urged EU officials to explore the possibility of shipping doses of a vaccine manufactured by Oxford/AstraZeneca even before it receives final clearance from the European Medicines Agency, so that doses are already on the ground in EU countries when the approval decision is taken. Other leaders expressed concerns about the legal ramifications of such a move, while others said it may simply not be practical. EU approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine is expected on January 29.
French President Emmanuel Macron also called for speeding up delivery of vaccines potentially through “the finalization of pre-orders,” according to an Élysée Palace official, suggesting that Macron’s thinking was in line with Frederiksen’s proposal.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters after the meeting that regulators should take the time they need to make the proper decisions. “Everyone would like this to happen quickly, not longer than necessary — but I underline: necessary,” Rutte said. “The time that’s needed must really be taken.”
“It’s very important for the support base for the vaccination program and people’s willingness to get vaccinated that there’s an absolute conviction that if a vaccine was approved, all scientific debates have happened meticulously … without political pressure,” Rutte told reporters.
Michel said that EU officials were considering all ideas. “All possible means will be examined to ensure rapid supply, including early distribution to avoid delays,” he said.
In a bid to find strength in numbers, leaders all across the bloc weighed in with messages of solidarity, from Sweden to Italy, and Spain to Austria and the Czech Republic , insisting that together Europe would surmount the pandemic.
But perhaps the most sobering conclusion on Thursday was the one delivered by von der Leyen: despite months of planning, including by COVAX, an international consortium, and by the G20 club of big economies, very little vaccine is now reaching the developing countries that can least afford to purchase it on their own. Von der Leyen said that because COVAX was struggling, the EU would set up its own system whereby member countries could donate doses to developing nations.
“Other parts of the world, the poorer ones, see themselves as left behind in the access of COVID-19 vaccines,” von der Leyen said. “As there is a global rush to vaccines, there is thus a shortage. I have suggested an EU mechanism to share access to some of our vaccines until COVAX is able to deliver poor countries with large quantities of vaccines.”
Von der Leyen said she expected the EU would soon have more vaccine than it will need. “In a couple of months in Europe we will have more doses than we can use,” she said. But there seemed to be little chance of any national government parting with highly-coveted vaccines in the weeks and months while their own citizens are waiting anxiously for the shots.
Von der Leyen and Michel said that they still believed the EU could achieve its target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population by summer.
“We’re fighting a battle,” Michel said. “We have to be mobilized.”
Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer, Hanne Cokelaere, Florian Eder and Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.
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