LONDON- European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it herself: the start was difficult. The European Union has had a bumpy Covid 19 vaccine rollout. The campaign has sparked complaints that regulators were too slow to approve the shots and led to a simmering tussle with AstraZeneca as pharmaceutical giant slowed its delivery commitments repeatedly. More recently, several countries halted their use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine amid safety concerns, a move that baffled health experts and raised questions about future approval. The World Health Organization expressed concern earlier this week that the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the region now seems more worrying than it has been for a number of months. The warning comes as many countries introduce new measures in an effort to stop a third wave of infections. The health agency also described Europe's vaccination campaign as unacceptably slow and said it was crucial to speed up the rollout because new infections are currently increasing in every age group, apart from those aged 80 years or older. It is a unique picture, further complicated by the messy nature of European politics. There have been several problems with the system, and it is a complex system, so I think it's not key to point the finger at one wrong failure but recognize that it is very complex, Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, told CNBC. The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, has been in charge of negotiating contracts with pharmaceutical firms on behalf of the 27 member states. The Institution is also responsible for monitoring the exports of shots produced in the bloc. However, health policy matters are a responsibility of member states, which means that the 27 capitals get the Inoculations in their own countries and can decide ultimately to buy Covid shots outside of the deals struck by the commission, for example. This juxtaposition between EU institutions and national institutions has often hindered the reputation of the bloc in the wider campaign to get vaccinations started. There are issues to do with both: There are also political aspects to it and we have heard about it in the media, but there are also issues to do with the decision-making structures, the commissions' views and the priorities of member states, Bauld told CNBC. This was recently highlighted when 13 EU countries decided to halt the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot while possible side effects were investigated.
At the time, the European Medicines Agency recommended that the drug regulator for the entire 27 member region continues to use the vaccine even while it was reviewing the data on blood clots in some vaccinated people. However, some member states preferred to be sovereign and used their sovereign power to stop the use of this vaccine while the EMA completed its review. In a preliminary review the drug safety committee concluded that the benefits of the vaccine continue to outweigh the risk of side effects. It has also been the case that heads of state have used the institutions in Brussels to complain about the hiccups in the process. Earlier in March, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said there was secrecy in the decision to distribute the vaccines at the steering board of the commission. The group, which is headed by the Commission, has representatives from all member states, including Austria. Why do they come up with this new list? During a March interview with CNBC, an EU official from another member state who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, asked Tiffani during a March interview. The distribution of the vaccines is carried out on a pro-rata basis, depending on the size of the population in the country. But some EU nations were particularly keen to have more of the AstraZeneca shot, since it is easier to store and cheaper than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. If a member state decides not to take its pro rata allocation, the doses are distributed among the other interested member states, the commission said in March in a statement. The distribution of vaccines became an issue as a result of repeated cuts to AstraZeneca's supply delivery.
While the EU was expecting to deliver 90 million doses of the shot by the end of the first quarter, the pharmaceutical giant said it could only deliver 40 million doses in this timeframe. This was later revised down to 30 million doses and AstraZeneca blamed lower yields in European plants for the low deliveries. The drugmaker further said that it could only expect to deliver 70 million doses between April and June, when the EU is expecting 180 million in the same period. We also know that unfortunately AstraZeneca under-produced and delivered under. And this has, of course, reduced the speed of the vaccination campaign, von der Leyen said at a press conference in March. To solve this issue, the Commission proposed stricter export rules for the shot produced in the bloc. Since January 27 countries can stop shipments of Covid vaccines when a company is not complying with the EU delivery targets.
This is how the Australian government stopped a shipment of AstraZeneca shots from going to Italy in March. Between the end of January and late March, the commission received 315 requests for vaccine exports, but only this one was refused. Because EU officials are concerned about further delay of delivery, the commission has determined from late March to tighten up export regulations. The Commission will not only check if the pharma companies are delivering on schedule, but also whether the recipient country has any prohibitions or restrictions on Covid vaccines produced there and whether this nation has a better epidemiological situation than the EU. It is quite concerning on the political level that Dimitri Eynikel, Coordinator at Medecins sans Frontieres, told CNBC.
He added that this could lead to further obstructions, divisions and delays in the distribution of vaccines. The supply chain is international and if one nation were to stop sending raw materials to the EU, for example, that could undermine production of the shots within the bloc. The move of the EU to have stricter oversight on where vaccines go sparked criticisms of vaccine nationalism. I think the EU is definitely first prioritizing its population but no different from other high-income countries or regions. The United Kingdom is doing the same, the USA is doing the same and in that sense is no different, Eynikel said. Data released by the International Monetary Fund has shown that China, India and the UK are among the biggest exporters of Covid shots, while the U.S. and Britain have none so far exported. Hopes for the second quarter- first quarter are good, but would it be great? Despite several issues so far, the EU is confident that the next three months will prove to be a turning point in the vaccine program.
The Commission is expecting 360 million doses of Covid shots between April and June, meaning that it is well positioned to attain its target of vaccinating 70% of the adult population before the end of summer.
Despite the fact that things could have gone faster, some might say that we have had great success. The alternative of not having procured vaccines together would be that we would be competing between European member states and possibly some of us would not have had the vaccine even at this stage, Chris Fearne, Malta's health minister for CNBC's Squawk Box Europe told Tuesday.