Merkel's handprints are all over Germany's Covid-19 vaccine failings

The pandemic seems to be getting away from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The pandemic seems to be getting away from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) - Angela Merkel is starting to crack under the pressure of Germany's faltering coronavirus vaccine programme.

With the Chancellor under fire publicly for a lack of Covid-19 shots and her strategy of delegating responsibility to the European Union looking misguided, she snapped when pressed for answers by German state premiers during a closed-door meeting in early January.

Getting angrier than those involved had ever seen, she threatened to retaliate and make the officials' mistakes public, shocking the participants into silence.

On other occasions in recent weeks, she came close to tears in public. "It's breaking my heart when I see how many people have died in senior homes in loneliness," she said in a recent speech.

Such emotion is highly unusual for the sober physicist, who has unflappably confronted one crisis after another in her 15 years at the helm of Europe's largest economy.

But, as she prepares to hand over the chancellorship after the election in September this year, the pandemic seems to be getting away from her.

An opinion poll released last week bears that out.

Only 11 per cent of respondents thought Germany's vaccine programme was going well, while 61 per cent saw major shortcomings with the roll-out.

Based on information from government officials who asked not to be identified discussing the private conversations inside the chancellery, a reconstruction of event shows that the country's vaccine stumbles bear Dr Merkel's handprint.

Her European focus sparked conflicts within the German government, while relying on an overburdened European Commission hampered the roll-out.

A government spokesman declined to comment on the internal deliberations.

The tension has sparked a high stakes power play in Brussels.

The EU is taking on AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical companies, and imposing export controls in an all-or-nothing response to its perceived failings.

Germany's effort started out well enough.

Dr Merkel's government supported early-stage vaccine development, getting a jump on other countries.

In April, Health Minister Jens Spahn - Dr Merkel's long-time adversary - contacted BioNTech and offered financial help.

In September, the German start-up received €375 million (S$605 million) in research funding, about three times what its public listing raised in late 2019.

In June, Germany invested €300 million in another German start-up, CureVac, acquiring a stake and fending off an approach by the United States' Trump administration.

Behind the scenes

But behind the scenes, a political struggle festered.

Mr Spahn has long been a thorn in the Chancellor's side. The ambitious 40-year-old conservative was an outspoken critic of her refugee policy and was offered a seat in her Cabinet in 2018 only reluctantly.

The coronavirus crisis offered him a chance to raise his profile, and he planned to take it.


Health Minister Jens Spahn has long been a thorn in the Chancellor's side. PHOTO: AFP

During the first weeks of the pandemic, Mr Spahn gave press conferences almost daily, until the chancellery told him to step out of the limelight.

In mid-March, Dr Merkel took the crisis under her wing, and Germany's relatively mild lockdown contained the spread.

The impression was that Dr Merkel had saved the day again.

Flushed with that success, she looked towards Germany's EU presidency in the second half of 2020.

There were big issues to tackle like the testy Brexit negotiations and the landmark recovery fund.

But Mr Spahn kept active.

In June, he forged a vaccine alliance with France, Italy and the Netherlands. The goal was to secure as many doses as possible, and on June 13, the group signed a preliminary contract with AstraZeneca for 400 million shots.


The vaccine alliance formed by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands signed a preliminary contract with AstraZeneca for 400 million shots in June. PHOTO: REUTERS

What could have been good news raised alarm bells in Berlin and Brussels. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen asked the chancellery to stop Mr Spahn's alliance.

Dr Merkel's former defence minister made it clear to the chancellor that Mr Spahn's effort could overshadow Germany's EU presidency.

As a committed multilateralist, she did not want to be remembered as saving Germans at the expense of the rest of the EU.

Shortly thereafter, Mr Spahn effectively apologised for the initiative. "We think it makes sense if the commission takes the leadership in this process," he and his three counterparts said in the letter - which was leaked to the media in January as part of a pressure campaign on Dr Merkel.

Throwing money around

Meanwhile, the US was throwing money around as part of Operation Warp Speed.

In May, the Trump administration pledged as much as US$1.2 billion (S$1.6 billion) in funding for AstraZeneca's vaccine project.

In July, the US agreed to pay US$1.95 billion for 100 million doses of the BioNTech vaccine, with an option to acquire an additional 500 million.

Nearly simultaneously with the US deal, Britain also agreed to buy 30 million doses from BioNTech and its partner Pfizer.

Little was happening in Brussels.

In July, the Commission flubbed a BioNTech offer for 500 million doses amid dithering on price and concerns about super-cold storage for the shots.


In July, the Commission flubbed a BioNTech offer for 500 million doses amid dithering on price and concerns about super-cold storage for the shots. PHOTO: AFP

By the end of the summer, the chancellery was increasingly alarmed about the slow progress, and Dr Merkel asked Dr von der Leyen to speed things up.

At the end of August, the Commission signed a deal with AstraZeneca.

It was not until Nov 20 that an EU agreement with BioNTech was finalised, 11 days after the company announced that its vaccine candidate was more than 90 per cent effective in clinical trials.

Even that was a struggle.

Germany had to guarantee it would take up to 100 million doses and added €192 million to the EU's pot of money for virus deals.

But as more studies underlined the shot's benefits, other member states lined up, and Germany's allotment was more than halved.

Vaccine fairness

Meanwhile, a bilateral agreement that Mr Spahn signed with BioNTech on Sept 8 for 30 million doses exclusively for Germany was mired in red tape.

"The process in Europe certainly didn't proceed as quickly and straightforwardly as with other countries," BioNTech chief executive officer Ugur Sahin told Spiegel magazine, blaming the EU's cumbersome bureaucracy and a careless approach.

"There was apparently an attitude of: We'll get enough, it won't be that bad, we have everything under control."

While the EU's procurement process was sputtering, Dr Merkel was busy presenting herself as the advocate for vaccine fairness.

In June, she announced Germany would give €600 million to the Gavi alliance, plus €100 million for developing countries.

The global approach makes sense from a scientific point of view, and to be sure, there is still a long road ahead that could allow Germany - still better off than many other countries - to recover.

But politically, it was making her allies squirm, especially as they look ahead to elections later this year.

Bavarian state leader Markus Soeder - a leading contender to succeed her as chancellor - has supported Dr Merkel's European course, but noted: "It's also not wrong to care about your own country."

To ease tensions, Dr Merkel will hold a German vaccine summit on Monday (Feb 1), but the pressure remains palpable.

When asked recently whether she would be willing to apologise for the missteps, she deflected and instead responded with a lecture about the complex production process, including the role of saline solution.

"Of course we could have ordered more earlier," Mr Spahn said last Friday, refusing to point the finger publicly at Dr Merkel or anyone else. "It's the virus that's our opponent, and not the pharma industry and not each other."