Europe is “not where we want to be” on vaccines, says EU chief

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a debate on the united EU approach to Covid-19 vaccinations at the European Parliament in Brussels on February 10. Francisco Seco/AP

Europe was late to authorize vaccines and too optimistic on mass production, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday during a debate on the bloc’s vaccine strategy.

“Today in the fight against the virus we’re still not where we want to be. We were late to authorize. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production, and perhaps we were too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament.

She said the EU needs to examine why this is the case and learn lessons from the experience. However, she stood firm on the EU’s decision to order vaccines “in solidarity” collectively, saying “it was the right thing to do”.

“I cannot even imagine what would have happened if just a handful of big players, big member states had rushed to it, then everybody else would have been left empty handed,” von der Leyen said. “What would that have meant for our internal market and for the unity of Europe. In economic terms it would have been nonsense, and it would have been I think the end of our community.”

On the time frames for authorizing vaccines, von der Leyen said:

We’ve made a choice, to not make any shortcuts when it comes to safety or efficacy, and we fully defend that choice. There is no compromise possible when it’s a matter of injecting a biologically active substance into an individual who is in good health.
“This is why we rely on the EMA, the European Medicines Agency’s procedure, and yes, that means that approval takes three to four additional weeks. That additional time is an essential investment to establish confidence, and to ensure security, and yes there are lessons to be learned from this, and we have already learned a great deal.” 

Von der Leyen has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks over the EU’s spat with the United Kingdom over vaccines.

After Brussels got jittery that its vaccination program was lagging behind, thanks to a shortage of doses, the Commission proposed placing export controls on vaccine manufacturers, meaning the EU could monitor — and potentially prevent — vaccines leaving the bloc.

As part of this proposal, the Commission said that those controls could be applied to vaccines going from the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) into Northern Ireland (part of the UK) — by triggering article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Critics immediately panned Brussels for even toying with the idea of placing restrictions on the Irish border, for fear it could lead to the return of sectarian, cross-border violence on the island of Ireland.

Von der Leyen said Wednesday “mistakes were made” in the process “but, in the end we got it right. And I can reassure you that my Commission will do its utmost to protect the peace of Northern Ireland, just as it has done throughout the entire Brexit process.”

Portugal’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, said at the parliamentary debate that “the truth is that companies may have overestimated their production capacities.”

She said the Commission’s export authorization mechanism for Covid-19 vaccines “will allow us to understand where the vaccines produced in EU are being distributed. In both cases transparency is paramount to increase citizens trust in this process.”

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