Austria and Denmark break away from Brussels' vaccines strategy

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James Crisp
·4 min read
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Sebastian Kurz said the approach of negotiating as a bloc has been right in principle but was just too slow. - AP
Sebastian Kurz said the approach of negotiating as a bloc has been right in principle but was just too slow. - AP

Austria and Denmark have become the latest EU countries to break away from Brussels' vaccines strategy, raising fears that the bloc's unity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic was crumbling.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Monday night said that Austria would work with Israel and Denmark on second generation coronavirus vaccines and “no longer rely on the EU in the future”.

It is widely seen as a rebuke to the European Commission-led joint procurement scheme for vaccines, which has lagged far behind the UK, Israel and US, and involved negotiating for supplies as a bloc.

Mr Kurz told Bild, Germany’s biggest selling newspaper, that the European Medicines Agency had been “too slow” in approving the jabs.

"We must therefore prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent only on the EU for the production of second-generation vaccines," he said.

Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that she had already bid for supplies of Israel’s leftover vaccines in another sign of the disintegrating confidence in Brussels to deliver the jabs.

7.54 doses per 100 people have been administered in the EU, compared to 31.58 in the UK and 89.99 in Israel. Austria has given 7.4 doses per 100 people and Denmark 11 doses.

Mr Kurz is due to travel with Ms Frederiksen to see Israel's rapid vaccine roll-out up close in a visit that will cause blushes in Brussels.

An EU diplomat said the joint procurement strategy was “born out of fear” that smaller countries would miss out.

“That said if all the smaller chickens are leaving the nest it begs the question why we initiated joint procurement at all,” the diplomat said.

"You can't have enough vaccines that are effective against the different virus strands," a second EU diplomat from a major member state said in Brussels. "So we should wish them luck - I guess."

The European Commission's preference is for member states to stick to the joint approach because side deals sap the bloc’s negotiating power.

EU rules allow national governments to approve and buy vaccines which are not part of the joint scheme, such as the Russian Sputnik and Chinese vaccines.

Other EU leaders have already moved to secure national supplies of the vaccines rather than wait for the EU scheme, which involved countries negotiating as a bloc to drive down prices.

Last night, Poland’s President talked to China’s leader Xi Jinping about a possible purchase of Chinese vaccines.

Slovakia took the first delivery of two million doses of the Sputnik vaccine, which has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency, on Monday.

Andrej Babis, the Czech prime minister, said he would not wait for the EU regulator before buying Sputnik.

Hungary has already approved and bought Sputnik without waiting for the EU regulator and is also the first member state to approve the Chinese vaccine.

On Sunday, Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, posted a photo of himself being vaccinated by the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine. Budapest has bought 2m doses of Sputnik and 5m jabs of Sinopharm.

The authoritarian leader attacked the EU scheme in late February. “We’ve sought to do something together that we could have managed more successfully on an individual basis – take a look at the examples of Britain or Serbia,” he said.

Regional leaders in France said they would try and negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies in January but have so far had no success.

Germany ordered 30 million extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine outside of the scheme in September. Berlin also has a separate order of 20m doses with CureVac.

“We have all agreed that there will be no parallel negotiations or parallel contracts,” Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after news of the German side deals broke.

A commission spokesman said that the joint vaccine programme had not crumbled and warned that emergency authorisations of jabs at national level could be risky.

"It's not that the strategy unravelled," the spokesman said,"For our vaccines, we go through the European Medicines Agency because we want to ensure efficacy and safety. What member states do in addition to that, it's their responsibility."

The under-fire European Commission president has repeatedly defended the decision to negotiate as a bloc, despite a row following supply shortfalls from AstraZeneca.

She said the strategy ensured smaller member states had access to the jabs in the European Parliament in February.

She claimed it would have been “the end of our community”, if larger, richer countries had snapped up all the vaccines instead of securing them jointly as a Union.

Brussels has secured and authorised supplies of the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines but the distribution of the jabs at national level have been slow.