European Union leaders held an online summit this week to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic as they prepare to toughen export controls in an attempt to speed up domestic vaccination campaigns. Here are the main takeaways from a busy week in Brussels:
Naivety no more
French president Emmanuel Macron called it "the end of naivety". From now on, unless Covid-19 vaccines are being sent to developing countries, they will need a permit to leave the bloc and governments or the European Commission can refuse one if the company has an unmet order with the EU, or the destination has a higher vaccination rate or is not exporting doses to the EU in turn.
Export figures provide the context: the EU has exported 77 million doses, the lion’s share of them to Britain, while it has received 88 million doses. “America first” and “Britain first” arrangements mean doses are not being exported in the other direction.
Dublin expressed reservations about the move. But after reassurance that it was primarily aimed at AstraZeneca, which is set to deliver just a quarter of an initially expected 120 million doses by the end of March, Taoiseach Micheál Martin conceded it was "important" to have a tool to hold companies to their commitments.
Several leaders expressed the hope that the big stick would be enough and it would never have to be used. And it possibly worked. A Dutch factory that had been unable to supply doses for the EU because AstraZeneca dragged its feet on submitting the paperwork, suddenly applied for certification this week and received it. And London has come to the table for talks on keeping supply chains open, suddenly full of enthusiasm about the need to work together.
Debate over Pfizer vaccines
Figures circulated to leaders show some countries lagging on vaccinations, because they initially turned down Pfizer and Moderna doses and are now worse affected by the AstraZeneca shortage. Bulgaria, Latvia and Croatia have respectively given out just 6.5, 6.7, and 11.3 doses per 100 adults compared to an EU average of 16.9 (Ireland is 18.1).
There are proposals to divide up an expected extra 10 million Pfizer vaccines so that more go to these states, and countries that are currently struggling with severe infection rates, instead of under the usual pro rata system.
But agreement was held up by the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz’ insistence that his country should be among those to get extra, even though Austria’s innoculation rate is above the EU average. The issue has been referred back to diplomats to sort out.
US and EU will vaccinate the world
US president Joe Biden addressed the summit, a rare event that signals a reset in the transatlantic relationship after the Trump years. Anyone expecting a declaration about the US stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines, which are yet to be approved for use domestically, would have been disappointed.
But warm words were exchanged about co-operation, and behind the scenes there are talks between Brussels and Washington on vaccines. In the scramble to scale up production, a shortage of anything from glass vials to disposal bags could suddenly cause a bottleneck in the interwoven supply chains.
Both sides recognise that the two continents are ultimately going to vaccinate much of the planet, officials say; the US with an estimated manufacturing capacity of 2 billion vaccines and the EU 2-3 billion by the end of the year. Biden’s target to provide vaccines to all citizens who want them by May means that exports should soon flow.