As Covid-19 numbers climb in Europe, the already grim mood has grown uglier as the European Union becomes embroiled in nasty spats with pharmaceutical companies over vaccine supply issues. It is threatening to impose a ban on the export of vaccines outside the bloc, something which could unleash precisely the vaccine wars which European governments warned against.
The EU is also demanding that AstraZeneca take coronavirus vaccines from its plants in Britain to make up for a shortfall in supplies to its member states.
It has not gone unnoticed that the country that is faring best in vaccinating its people in Europe is precisely the one that has just left the EU: Britain. It has already administered a first vaccine dose to 10 per cent of its population, five times the EU average.
Welcome to another sorry tale of bureaucratic incompetence and of protectionist European behaviour masquerading under the guise of internationalist beliefs.
When the 27 European states decided last year that they will give powers to the EU to procure coronavirus vaccines collectively, the move was hailed as a grand gesture. Not for Europe those vaccine wars other countries may be contemplating in the face of likely shortages. The EU is different: It will buy and distribute vaccines to all its states at the same time and based on need rather than ability to pay. A quicker vaccination for all, and an additional example to the world of a superior way of doing things.
The hitch is that despite the noble intentions, the story so far is a global example of how not to do things.
Books are sure to be written about the backstage manoeuvring in the European Commission (EC), the executive body of the EU, which is administering the vaccine procurement. But what is already clear is that the commission was not up to the task thrust upon it.
What went wrong
The vaccine programme fell on the shoulders of Mrs Stella Kyriakides, a citizen of Cyprus, one of the EU's smallest nations, a psychologist by training. Her small staff had no prior experience in managing such procurement projects. Yet they insisted on renegotiating contracts with pharmaceutical companies already concluded by some individual EU states.
Politics continued to play a role, as the EC came under pressure from the bigger member states to buy vaccines from a variety of companies, such as France's Sanofi whose efforts produced no immediate results. Some countries - Germany included - continued to try to buy smaller quantities of vaccines "on the side".
And because EU officials were overworked and under-resourced, none of them apparently thought of the need to coordinate the vaccine delivery with the roll-out plans in individual countries.
The result is a fiasco unfolding in slow motion before our eyes. First came the realisation that Europe did not order enough vaccines. Then came the realisation that vaccination processes are far too slow and chaotic. And now the hardest blow: the discovery that being late in negotiating contracts with pharmaceutical companies also means that if there are any glitches in production, Europe ends up suffering shortages first.
Britain's government is not exactly a model of efficiency: The country has had one of the highest mortality rates in the world during the pandemic and has just passed the grim figure of 100,000 deaths from coronavirus complications. But, partly because the British government has such a great stake in recovering its tattered reputation and partly because it acted on its own, the authorities in London avoided most of the mistakes committed in Brussels.
The British put pharma specialists in charge of procurement and beat the Europeans by at least three months in concluding contracts with top pharmaceutical firms. They avoided the companies which did not look promising. They over-ordered: Current contracts - although not immediate deliveries - will cover the needs of Britain's population three times over. They rushed the vaccine approvals through. And they had the vaccination roll-out ready when the first doses were delivered.
The comparison did not go down well with European politicians and officials in Brussels.
EU officials started by claiming that, unlike the British who allegedly cut corners in approving the use of new vaccines, the Europeans would take their time in testing the efficiency of the products before releasing them to the public.
They then claimed that the slow roll-out of vaccinations was also deliberate, supposedly an attempt to reassure the European public about the vaccines' safety. And when both explanations bombed in the blame game, they directed their anger at pharmaceutical companies for allegedly failing to deliver enough supplies.
Anger at AstraZeneca
The EC had signed contracts with eight manufacturers for a total of about two billion vaccine doses. So far, only Pfizer-BioNTech has delivered the goods and even then, the US company is temporarily cutting back its production at the end of this month.
But the greatest fury is directed at AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish firm producing the vaccine developed at Oxford University in England; it has just announced that it can deliver only 40 per cent of the contracted doses in the first quarter of this year, while keeping its supplies to Britain unaffected.
The EU has exploded in anger. The German government is considering forcing pharmaceutical firms based in Europe to seek permission before they can export their products outside the bloc. In other words, it is doing precisely what Europe used to accuse China of doing in the first stages of the pandemic - withholding life-saving supplies of Covid-19-related exports. (In the Chinese case, it involved personal protection equipment.)
The EC is also insisting that pharmaceutical companies "open up their books" and reveal who they are selling the vaccines to, and in what quantities, throwing to the wind respect for secrecy of contracts which the EU itself has concluded with these companies.
This is not a commercial dispute, but a political one, conducted with dubious commercial justifications.
First, some basic facts. The vaccine produced by AstraZeneca has yet to be approved for use in the EU, although it may get approval today. So, all of Europe's politicians are in the ridiculous position of getting furious over the delivery of a vaccine which, at least in theory, has yet to be deemed safe.
First come, first served, or not?
And, as Mr Pascal Soriot, the boss of AstraZeneca, pointed out, the real reason supplies from his company to Britain are continuing while they are being reduced to the EU is that the British negotiated their deal much earlier and paid in advance, not only for the research at Oxford University but also for some of the production facilities and for priority in distribution.
The production of viral-vector vaccines like the one made by Oxford and AstraZeneca is a biological process which is more easily compared to fermentation, and not to a straightforward process of chemical engineering. So, it is not a matter of throwing all ingredients together to get a uniform product; slightly different batches can end up with slightly different outcomes, and the process needs to be tweaked until it produces optimum results.
Because the British started earlier, the production line in the United Kingdom was perfected earlier and runs smoothly, thereby guaranteeing a steady supply as agreed by the contract. But AstraZeneca's EU-based plants are more experimental and are producing a lower-than-expected yield of the active ingredient - hence the delays.
But Mrs Kyriakides has rejected AstraZeneca's explanation, saying the British should not gain any advantage from signing a contract three months before the EU.
"We reject the logic of first come, first served," she said. "That may work in a butcher's shop but not in contracts and not in our advance purchase agreements."
The full text of the contract between AstraZeneca and the EU is not publicly available. The company claims that it has merely promised to fulfil supplies to the "best of its ability", while EU officials claim that its failure to deliver the right quantities may amount to a breach of contract.
But even if EC officials are right, the EU is doing more than challenging an alleged breach of contract. In effect, it is telling a company that, if it fails to supply Europe, it must contemplate even violating its contract with Britain to fulfil the contract with the EU. And it also asserts that Europe has precedence over all other contracts that AstraZeneca may have in the world.
Mrs Kyriakides' demand that Europe should be served first does not sit well with Europe's frequent claims to respect for international law and procedures.
Accompanying these arguments are malicious allegations directed at the company and at Britain.
AstraZeneca is supposedly prioritising Britain because it is British, according to reports citing anonymous sources in Brussels. Well, it partially is, although its boss is a Frenchman. It is also said to be supplying Britain because the British are paying more. Yet again, no: The British are paying the same as the EU, and AstraZeneca has vowed to make no profit on the entire enterprise.
And then, there is the curious bit of news appearing in a German newspaper, which alleges that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not effective in older patients. No clinical data has been provided, and even the German Health Ministry has denied this story.
But someone evidently had an interest in besmirching AstraZeneca's reputation, while at the same time demanding more supplies of the same vaccine which allegedly does not work.
And the game of weasel words continues.
"It's not about 'EU First'," says Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn. "It is about Europe's fair share."
Well, no. Setting aside the argument over who comes first, the EU is insisting on accessing a total of 17 per cent of worldwide vaccine supplies, to safeguard EU citizens who are only 5 per cent of the world's population.
There are no saints in this story: By touting its superior vaccination programme, the British are also playing politics.
But it is clear who the losers are: Europeans as a whole. For not only are they botching up their recovery from the pandemic, but they also risk unleashing a broader vaccine war through their irresponsible behaviour.
One expected better from the organisation which until recently was teaching other nations how to behave.