Ursula von der Leyen said a country on its own like the UK can act more like a ‘speedboat’ than an EU ‘oil tanker’, but the 27 governments are right to work together on their vaccination program.
The President of the European Commission admitted to having made mistakes when deploying vaccines, in particular not having invested enough in increasing production capacity.
She also conceded that the commission “had underestimated the difficulties” it would face and should have warned the public in advance of the likely “ups and downs”.
But, in an interview with nine European newspapers, she defended Brussels against recent criticism that it had been too slow to close deals in light of a deal reached between the UK and AstraZeneca three months before the bloc .
Von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, said that while collective decision-making could be cumbersome, it ensured that the poorest countries in the EU would not be left behind, according to French newspaper La Cross.
“I am aware that only a country can be a speedboat, while the EU is more like an oil tanker,” said Von der Leyen. “Before concluding a contract with a pharmaceutical company, the 27 Member States had five full days to say whether they agreed or not.
“It naturally delays the process. Indeed, we must constantly put pressure on ourselves to make each step of the decision-making process as fast and efficient as possible.
“But I am absolutely convinced that the European approach is the right one. On these vaccines, we worked faster than usual. I cannot even imagine what it would have meant for Europe, in terms of unity, if one or more Member States had access to vaccines and the others did not.
The EU has administered vaccines to 3.22% of its adult population, compared to 15.5% who received a first vaccine in the UK. Israel administered a coup to 60% of its population.
Von der Leyen said the main cause of the time difference between the EU and the UK was the slower authorization process undertaken by the European Medicines Agency than that open to national regulators.
She said: “The UK has chosen the route of emergency marketing authorizations. We have chosen another one and we think it is the right one.
“Israel is also often cited as a model of success. The country is highly digitalized – and that’s good – but personal health data is transmitted to companies there. This is not something we would want to do in the EU.
Figures compiled by data analytics firm Airfinity suggest the US has invested nine times as much as the EU in increasing vaccine manufacturing, although the figures have been disputed by the commission.
But Von der Leyen admitted the bloc should have invested more money in increasing capacity.
“What I realize, looking in the rearview mirror, is that we should have thought more, in parallel, about mass production and the challenges it poses,” she said. “The industry has never suddenly embarked on such a gamble…
“To increase volumes, to set up new channels sufficiently upstream, we could have done it earlier. We are now working with industry to prepare for the possibility of variants of the coronavirus that may resist vaccines.
“We must immediately support science, so that vaccines are adapted as quickly as possible. Because the best lesson learned in recent months is that you never know what will happen in a year. We must be prepared for all eventualities.
Last week, the committee had to do an about-face to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement as part of its attempt to control vaccine exports out of the bloc.
The EU executive branch wanted to temporarily override the terms of the treaty to establish a vaccine border on the island of Ireland to ensure that Northern Ireland could not be used as a backdoor for vaccine exports to the United Kingdom.
“We shouldn’t even have thought about article 16,” she said. “I regret that. The commission made around 1,500 decisions in a short period of time and almost 900 emergency decisions under very high pressure.
Meanwhile, on an awkward trip to Moscow, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell welcomed the development of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, adding that he would be welcome given the block “faces a shortage of vaccines”.
“This is good news for all of humanity because it means we will have more tools to fight the pandemic,” he said.
Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, said that several European countries were “interested in producing the vaccine on their territory”.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said he may consider urgently approving vaccines not approved by the European regulator during a visit to Hungary, which uses both Russian and Chinese vaccines.
“I have spoken about the Russian vaccine and the Chinese vaccine, with Chancellor Merkel, and the Chancellor and the Bavarian Prime Minister unambiguously call for this vaccine to be approved by the European Medicines Agency,” Babiš said.
“Now of course the question is whether the producer is seeking approval or not, and of course we want to consider, if we get our hands on the vaccine, going down the same path as Hungary because time is of the essence. . ”