EC president on Covid-19 vaccination snags: “Czechia could support, speed up or help” at any time

Ursula von der Leyen, photo: archive of EU

An unprecedented joint procurement initiative led by Brussels to secure coronavirus vaccines and make them equally available to all 27 EU member states has fallen well short of the mark. To date, just over 3 percent of the bloc’s population of 450 million has received a Covid-19 vaccination. Not only did the EU rollout begin notably later than in post-Brexit Britain and the United States, supplies have failed to arrive as contracted. How did it go so wrong?

In normal circumstances, EU member states are responsible for their own public health policies. The Covid-19 pandemic put Brussels at the helm and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in the captain’s chair. Her basic mission was through collective bargaining to avoid “vaccine nationalism” and secure doses at a significant discount.

How did Brussel’s joint vaccine procurement initiative and roll out go wrong? How soon might supply and distribution issues be resolved? In a recent interview with Czech Radio’s flagship station Radiožurnál and other European media, Ursula von der Leyen fielded a volley of questions about alleged missteps.

“Normally, it takes 5 to 10 years to develop a vaccine, and therefore everything was focused on developing one. Rightly so. I remember we had more than 100 different companies, researchers, institutes applying for support. Looking back – and also looking forward – where we have to do better is immediately in parallel think about mass production.”

Photo: Barbora Taševská / Czech Radio

Those issues are of immediate concern, she says, as researchers, manufacturers and governments throughout the world must be prepared to respond also to mutations of Covid-19, some of them more “aggressive”, such as the British variant.

With delays in orders from some EU-approved manufacturers, member states have begun looking to sign side deals to secure vaccines. Hungary just became the first to approve the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine for general use and to order the Chinese-developed vaccine Sinopharm. Can the bloc respond quickly enough in times of crisis?

“Of course I am aware that while a country might move like a speedboat, and the European Union is more of a tanker. But this is the strength of the European Union, and I am deeply convinced that the European approach is the right one. We were much faster than usual, but there are a few factors we must look at more in depth.

“First of all, I could not even imagine what it would mean for Europe if we had one, two, three or four member states that had access to the vaccines – and all the others not – what that would have meant for the single market, what that would have meant for the unity of the European Union? Unthinkable!”

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has said the European Commission “fell asleep at the wheel” when it came to managing vaccine procurement and roll out. After visiting Budapest last week, he said the Czech Republic could follow Hungary’s lead and buy vaccines as-yet unapproved by the European Medicines Agency. Does European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen feel there has been miscommunication between the EU executive arm and member states?

“My experience is that the vast majority of leaders are very supportive and do so publicly. And now to the facts: since June, a steering board has been in place, where all 27 member states are represented, and no decision is taken without their consent. And the steering board is meeting 5 to 7 times a month to discuss every little detail of each contract.

“There was a smaller team of member states on the negotiation team that dealt with the different pharmaceutical companies, so they know every single step. So there was and is a very transparent information line also to the Czech Republic, and at any time, the Czech Republic could support, speed up or otherwise help things move forward.”