EU and UK arm wrestle over vaccines

Brussels flexes its muscles over Covid jab, but British are big winners in vaccine war


Morecambe Cricket Club sits at the end of a quiet street of semi-detached houses, its neatly-trimmed playing and practice fields tucked away in a wedge bordered by a railway line.

It’s about a kilometre away from the Mazuma Stadium, the home of Morecambe FC who sit in the last promotion playoff spot in England’s League Two — the fourth tier of professional football.

Right now, these two sleepy English sporting facilities — and many hundreds more up and down Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too — are in the front line of an increasingly bitter war of words between the European Union and the United Kingdom over Covid vaccines.

There are many things the UK has done wrong in this past year of pandemic — yes, allowing the Cheltenham races festival and the Liverpool-Atletico Madrid Champions League game to proceed were just two of them — but it cannot be faulted when it comes to the way it has rolled out its coronavirus vaccination programme.

UK right on the top

Last Saturday alone, 844,285 people rolled up their arms and were vaccinated in places like Morecambe CC and Morecambe FC in the UK — more than in a dozen EU countries combined.

Altogether, officials in France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Portugal, Austria, Greece, the Czech Republic, Poland, Belgium and Denmark combined managed to stick needles in the arms of 841,828 of their citizens in this year-long war of pandemic and societal attrition.

Yes, the UK is winning. More than half of its adult population has received at least one jab of three vaccines approved for use. The UK’s medicines regulator was quick to approve use of the Pfiser, AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines. Quicker still were the actions of a UK vaccines purchasing group that was willing to bet the house on the success of the jabs then in clinical trials last June, and sign up for hundreds of millions of doses.

While the pandemic started to develop in late January 2020, by June the UK had signed a contract for 100 million doses of the still-in-trials Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. A separate deal securing access to 30 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was announced the next month, and this was increased to 40 million doses in October.

“They’ve got ahead on ordering vaccines and they’ve got the doses in hand to give,” says Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading. “It’s as simple as that.”

And maybe because it is that simple partly explains why the EU are furious right now, doing their darndest to try and get more than their fair share of vaccine anyway they can. Yes, even if that means playing some pretty lowball politics and invoking EU-bloc rules to teach the UK a lesson for, well, being so smart and so quick out of the block.

According to the British Medical Journal, the UK’s hefty vaccine orders were made in part thanks to the 2011 film ‘Contagion’. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was spooked by the ending of the film, in which countries ravaged by a respiratory disease are left fighting for a limited number of vaccine doses. He insisted on ordering 100 million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses despite receiving advice to order a mere 30 million.

The UK’s strategy was, and pardon the pun, a bloc-buster.

Much of the UK’s supply of AstraZeneca comes from plants in Belgium and the Netherlands, and a string of EU officials are saying what is produced in the EU should stay in the EU.

Sandra Galina, the chief of the European Commission’s health division, told EU legislators that while vaccine producers such as Pfizer and Moderna have largely met their commitments “the problem has been AstraZeneca”, adding: “So it’s one contract which we have a serious problem.”

The EU closed an advance purchasing agreement with the Anglo-Swedish company in August last year for up to 400 million doses — some two months after the UK had signed its contract. That phrase “first come, first served” keeps rolling around my head right now, hard to find any sympathy with the EU sniping.

Maximise vaccine production

A string of UK ministers have thrown their weight into the debate, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace commenting that any attempt to block vaccine exports from the EU would be “counterproductive” and the “grown-up thing” would be to work with the UK to maximise production.

But things are testy in Brussels. EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness told the BBC “everything is on the table” when asked if the bloc was seriously considering trying to stop vaccines being exported to Britain. EU citizens are “growing angry and upset at the fact that the vaccine roll-out has not happened as rapidly as we had anticipated,” she said.

When asked if that was “vaccine nationalism" at play, McGuinness was quick to fire back that the UK itself had banned the export of a hundred pharmaceutical products first — and if anyone was guilty of such a deed, that’s where the blame game should start first.

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel jumped in to support Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s handling — really that should read ‘gross mishandling’ — of the standoff.

“We have a problem with AstraZeneca,” the chancellor said.

No, not quite Ms Merkel, not quite right. The EU has an issue with the way it was caught out. Bungling. Tardiness. Red tape. Call it what you will. For once Boris and his old boys team got it right.

He scored a thundering 40-metres volley at the Mazuma Stadium in Morecambe. Brits 1, Europe 0. And he has smashed a huge, big boundary-busting six straight over the screens at the neighbouring cricket club.

Better still, more than 27 million British winners so far.


Mick O'Reilly is a Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. 

Source: Gulf News