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EU: A united coronavirus vaccination plan is worth a little wait

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Slow and steady might not win the vaccine race, but Europe hopes it will win people’s confidence.

After news broke Wednesday that the U.K. authorized a coronavirus vaccine from BioNTech/Pfizer, the EU27 tried to stand firm in their decision to wait for a thorough review and authorization from the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

“The idea is not that we be first, but … to have safe and effective vaccines in the pandemic,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters after a health ministers meeting. 

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides emphasized that waiting until the EMA has looked over all the data will ensure citizens trust the vaccine when it’s eventually approved and rolled out. 

“Vaccine safety is priority number one,” she said. “Citizens need to be able to feel confident to go ahead and be vaccinated.”

Wednesday was supposed to be the day the Commission pushed EU countries to get on board with their grand vision for a “European Health Union” — a plan for better health coordination — at a virtual health ministers’ meeting. The Commission has repeatedly pointed to the bloc’s vaccine strategy as proof of what’s possible when EU countries come together. 

“The greatest mistake we could make is to only focus on today’s difficulties — they are important — but then to lose sight of the future,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Tuesday as she promoted the Health Union. “This is …. not just about solutions to the current crisis, but it is about a vision for Europe.”

But that grand vision was completely overshadowed Wednesday by the big news coming out of a country poised to complete its departure from the Union. 

The U.K. is rolling out the BioNTech/Pfizer coronavirus vaccine specifically by circumventing the EU’s approval mechanism. It’s using a loophole in EU law that allows countries to put a vaccine on the market immediately in an emergency rather than waiting for the EMA’s conditional marketing authorization.

The decision is being hailed by Brexiteers in particular, who criticize the EU’s vaccine strategy as a holdup.

The U.K. plans to start vaccinating health workers and vulnerable people next week, while the head of the EMA said the agency will meet to authorize the vaccine by December 29 at the latest, and some health ministers said Wednesday they planned to start vaccinating in January.

“We cannot predict a date with certainty … but we hope that by early next year, member states will be able to start vaccinating,” Kyriakides said. “What is important to understand is that once authorized and produced, each vaccine will be available to member states at the same time.” 

Spahn defended the decision of Germany and the EU. He said EU countries “could have issued such an emergency authorization if we’d wanted to, but we decided against this.”

“What we opted for was a common European approach to move forward together,” he continued. “It’s very important we do this to help promote trust and confidence in this authorization.”

“So there may be slight differences in the issuing of authorizations between the U.S., the U.K. and the EU,” he added. “We’ll also have an opportunity to collect more information.”

Spahn also reminded the British that the vaccine they will start using next week was developed largely by a German biotech company financed with EU research money: “If a product from the European Union is so good, that it is authorized so quickly in the U.K., [it shows] what is best is European and international cooperation.”

Not all are enthusiastic about the slow and steady approach given that EU27 countries won’t receive vaccine doses until the EMA approval comes through.

Maltese Health Minister Christopher Fearne praised the EU’s efforts to jointly procure a coronavirus vaccine, but said that it might be helpful for the EMA to “explain to us, and more importantly to the wider European general public” the reason for the lag in the EMA’s decision. 

“Because all of our citizens will be looking at what’s happening in the U.K. and asking this question,” Fearne added. 

Although EU countries largely stood by their decision to come together on vaccines, they told the Commission where their red lines were when it came to future collaboration. Commenting on the Commission’s Health Union plans, many voiced concern over Brussels’ push to beef up the EU’s role in health cooperation. 

They complained the Commission is moving too quickly and that the plans could lead to duplication. The familiar reminder that health decisions are and will always be in the hands of the member countries, was repeated. 

Denmark’s Magnus Heunicke acknowledged that the pandemic had revealed weaknesses in Europe’s crisis management mechanisms. However, based on a first reading of the proposal, he said: “We do have concerns as regards the division of competences.”

A future health crisis plan must “fully respect national competences,” Heunicke added, while avoiding placing an “unnecessary burden on health authorities” in member countries. 

Bulgarian Health Minister Kostadin Angelov went further, saying that some of the Commission’s proposals “encroach” on the powers of member countries, who are held accountable to voters. 

“Where has the EU proved that it can be more effective than [member states]?” Angelov asked. “[We] member states will have to see if what is being proposed at European level is enough to address our problems.”

Most countries focused their criticism on the Commission’s proposal to have its Health Security Committee (HSC) agree to a decision that would be applied instantly in all EU countries — a move that would take power out of capitals’ hands.

“There should be a clear distinction between technical discussions and political decision making,” said Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren. “We must make sure that we build systems that are fit for their purposes and provide an added value on a European level without creating an undue administrative burden.” 

Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge, meanwhile, said he wanted more time to “thoroughly discuss” the Commission’s plans, specifically with an impact assessment. That immediately prompted Spahn to caution over the two-year time span for such an assessment: “I agree that we don’t need to rush, but we shouldn’t delay this unnecessarily either.”

Kyriakides sought to smooth over disagreements. 

It was to be expected that ministers “have questions” or “want more clarifications” about the Health Union plans, she said. On the whole, the Health Commissioner said the proposal was “very well accepted.” 

“Citizens want more health and more Europe in the area of public health,” Kyriakides said, adding that the Commission has now put forward a proposal that delivers on this demand.  

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