There are no spare vaccines available for Ireland to lobby for

Europe Letter: Debate in Ireland is divorced from reality of the global scramble for doses

A health worker administers a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 to a patient in Rome. Photograph:  Andrew Medichini/AP

A health worker administers a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 to a patient in Rome. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP

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Tuning into Irish airwaves reveals the country is seized by the idea that there are spare Covid-19 vaccines somewhere that could go into Irish arms if only the Government lobbied for them.

This is not the case. The entire world is engaged in a scramble for vaccine doses. The misperception has been created by a mix of confused or ill-informed notions about the European Union’s procurement process spread and exploited by Irish politicians, and the toxic influence of misleading information from Britain.

“We should negotiate for extra doses like Germany and Denmark” is one demand. Ireland has already done this: it bought 138,000 extra doses under the EU system. And the chance to get any more came and went long ago, in the procurement negotiations last autumn and earlier.

Some countries turned down the more expensive Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at that point, when AstraZeneca’s manufacturing shortfall was but a twinkle in Pascal Soriot’s eye. Denmark and Germany were rich, they were far-sighted, and they were lucky. They moved in early and scooped up more before others realised it was a good idea.

Nothing now constrains Taoiseach Micheál Martin from asking Washington or any other capital nicely if they have some going spare. But it would be a long shot and appear a bit desperate. And it’s not an original idea. The EU is already in talks to try to persuade President Joe Biden to relax his country’s vaccine export ban, with an eye to securing Johnson & Johnson supplies.

Reporting in Britain

Couldn’t we get AstraZeneca jabs that are sitting on shelves in France and Germany because their fussy citizens turned them down?

This misleading idea is largely the result of over-excited reporting in Britain.

The conclusion to the Brexit process seems to have mentally estranged even normally sensible British journalists and hyper-partisan reporting about the EU has become even more pervasive than it was before, with each turn of events presented as a retrospective verdict on the decision to leave the bloc.

It is apparently not enough for Britain’s vaccination campaign to be doing well: the EU’s must be seen to be doing badly.

There is a lesson there for Ireland. There is a months-long gap between securing doses, and doses arriving

Vaccines being delivered and administered at different rates; citizens having a preference for one vaccine over another; regulators awaiting more data before approving the use of a vaccine for a certain age group. Entirely normal events that also occurred in Britain but without receiving the same laser-scrutiny have been sighted by the Sauron eye of Fleet Street, which reads each as a fresh crisis for the EU.

National pride was apparently offended by inaccurate remarks by French president Emmanuel Macron about the efficacy of the Oxford-developed vaccine, and the separate reasonable decision of national regulators to initially restrict the vaccine to younger groups pending additional evidence, as they have the world over. (Only a few hundred older people received the vaccine in the Oxford trials, too small a sample to draw conclusions).

Decisions by regulators to now approve the vaccine for over-65s due to additional data were widely reported as a “U-turn” in Britain, as though the regulators had made a mistake or political choice they were now disavowing. (The Express headline was “Take that, Macron! France makes screeching U-turn and finally backs AstraZeneca jab”).

National and regional rates of vaccination vary. But if any country has a backlog, it will focus on speeding up its rollout, not on giving away the precious doses to Dublin.

Outside the system

Aren’t some countries venturing outside the EU system?

Hungary has bought Russian and Chinese vaccines that have neither applied for nor received approval by the European Medicines Agency. Ireland is free to do the same. But no one should be under any illusion about the trade-offs.

The State would have to accept liability if anything went wrong. People might not want to receive an unregulated vaccine. And it would upset our allies. Hungary granted this propaganda boon to Moscow and Beijing partly to embarrass the EU.

Didn’t Denmark and Austria make a deal with Israel last week? This was not an agreement to get doses: Israel gets vaccines from the EU. They made a vague declaration about co-operating on future vaccine development for the next generation of vaccines.

There is a lesson there for Ireland. There is a months-long gap between securing doses, and doses arriving. Moves to increase Ireland’s immediate vaccine supply now are happening too late.

The clever approach would be to prepare for the challenges of the summer and beyond, when we will have first-generation vaccines to spare, and may be in a fresh race for updated versions that work against new variants.

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