No good deed goes unpunished. The curse of the sarcastic British saying hangs over the European Union and the pharmaceutical industry when both aspired to score so many milestones in the fight against covid-19. The sources consulted by EL PAÍS coincide in considering the vaccine strategy launched by the European Commission, based on an unprecedented joint purchase of millions of doses, a great success. But there is also the feeling that the body has been overwhelmed by the enormous task and has sinned from lack of foresight due to supply failures that have occurred in several laboratories. The pharmaceutical sector is not unscathed from the fiasco by suspicions about its commercial distribution practices.
Brussels has seen the first successes of its vaccination strategy, launched with great fanfare in June last year and crowned with the first immunizations across the continent at the end of 2020, evaporate during the month of January. The euphoria of the first puncture has been Gone to frustration over lack of vaccines. From the beginning of the end of the pandemic to an almost daily record of deaths, hospitalizations or infections by covid-19 anywhere in the European Union. The number of deaths on the continent is already close to half a million and that of infections to 20 million.
The States are now verifying that the contracts signed by the European Commission, chaired by Ursula von der Leyen, with pharmaceutical companies offer fewer guarantees of supply than expected. The experts consulted doubt that Von der Leyen can cling to the signed contracts to hold the companies accountable. “The Commission should have sought the advice of lawyers specialized in commercial matters and not only rely on their legal service,” they defend in one of the specialized law firms in Brussels. No one denies, however, that these were urgent negotiations with few precedents that have also taken some of the laboratories off their feet. “Moderna also had no experience in this type of contract because it is her first vaccine and she sought external legal help,” says an advisor to one of the pharmaceutical companies.
The Commission insists that its objective is not to litigate with any company, but to obtain the vaccines as soon as possible. The slow arrival of doses of BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna, and the announcement by AstraZeneca that it only has a quarter of the committed vials, has led to a halt in vaccination and an almost total halt in large towns such as Madrid, Paris or Lisbon.
The growing anger of the capitals with Von der Leyen has led the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, to wield Article 122 of the Union Treaty that would allow Brussels impose drastic measures on pharmaceutical companies to guarantee supply, such as the obligation to share the production license with other companies so that they can manufacture on their own. It is a very invasive measure in the management of a company and only used in cases of serious emergencies. Brazil applied it to make AIDS treatment cheaper and the US, after 9/11, used it to force Bayer to make the antidote to terrorist attacks with anthrax cheaper.
The voluntary agreement between Sanofi and Pfizer to accelerate the production of the BioNTech vaccine seems the first step to overcome the initial fiasco of the vaccination campaigns. For some experts, that formula must have been promoted much earlier. “The European Commission has lagged behind the crisis several times in managing the pandemic, and the delay in vaccine supply in Europe is yet another example,” says Elias Mossialous, Head of the Department of Public Health at the London School of Economics. “If the Commission had acted earlier and used the right tools and incentives to pressure Big Pharma into alliances like Sanofi and Pfizer, we would now be better off,” adds Professor Mossialous.
The Commission has reacted with a measure to control exports of vaccines and avoid the transfer of European production to third countries that do not urgently need them. But the governments consider this measure insufficient and its announcement, moreover, has already caused another skid and a clash with the UK, which is considered harmed by the possible restrictions.
Despite these initial setbacks, Brussels remains convinced that vaccination will end up being an unprecedented success and the first step towards a future health union. “It cannot be said at all that the European vaccination strategy has failed,” says Pascal Canfin MEP, president of the European Parliament’s Environment Commission, which oversees health policy. Canfin believes that without the joint purchase of the Commission “the 27 EU partners would be fighting each other to get the vaccines, countries like Spain would have paid more than France or Germany for the doses and some states would have asked Russia or China for help ”.
The same line of defense is maintained by Eric Mamer, official spokesman for the European Commission. “If it weren’t for the contracts signed by the Commission, some countries still would not have received a single dose,” he said. Brussels has mobilized 2.9 billion from the Community budget and has signed six purchase contracts in advance for a total of 2.3 billion doses, more than enough for the 450 million Europeans. And he hopes that a good part, up to 1 billion, can be re-exported to neighboring countries or donated to countries with fewer resources.
“I am convinced that we are going to overcome this great pothole”, bets the MEP Dolors Montserrat, a member of the Environment Commission of the European Parliament. The former Minister of Health calls AstraZeneca’s non-compliance “intolerable”, but believes that the 27 could break the company if they stick together. “I doubt that a multinational of its size wants to face one of its main markets,” says Montserrat. And he underlines that the first responses of the EU, with an export control mechanism and the threat of Article 122 of the treaty to be able to impose irremissible supply obligations on pharmaceutical companies, show the strength of the club. “I do not think that production will be requisitioned, as that article of the treaty would allow, but it makes it clear that we can defend ourselves.”
Brussels estimates that vaccination campaigns will normalize and accelerate dramatically from March and throughout the second quarter. And he believes that it will be the basis for the European health union that will emerge after the pandemic and whose implementation has already begun. The European Commission has proposed expanding the powers and capacities of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC).
Also underway is the creation of a body to react to any health emergency such as BARDA, the US Authority for Advanced Research and Development, which led the fight against crises derived from anthrax or Ebola and the race for vaccines from covid-19. This same Sunday, Von der Leyen meets with the CEOs of the pharmaceutical companies that have developed the vaccines purchased by the Commission to promote the new European emergency program. Waiting for that promising future, the relationship between Brussels and the pharmaceutical sector seems to be marching to the rhythm of the music of C. Tangana: “When it was most needed, you turned your back on me”.
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