In a recent television interview, the Slovakian-born Vice-President of the European Commission Maroš Šefčovič put an extraordinary spin on the crisis that European countries are currently facing due to the COVID-19 vaccine delays. He simply refused to acknowledge the existence of any problems with shortages. On the contrary, he had expressed satisfaction with the way the acquisition of the medicine is progressing, claiming that “if someone had told us six months ago that we are going to be this far in obtaining vaccines today than we would have all welcomed this.”
This is in stark contrast with the sentiments of many European leaders who have criticized the European institutions for the costly and dangerous delays in obtaining required vaccine supplies. Member states of the EU are reliant on the centralized acquisition and distribution process, and because of bureaucratic delays and apparent mismanagement, they are forced to make do with only a trickle of vaccines as a consequence. This in turn hinders the fight against the pandemic and will cause significant delays in lifting quarantine restrictions. In comparison with other developed economies such as the UK, US and Israel, the EU had fallen behind in obtaining sufficient amounts of the medicine for its citizens.
To make matters worse, production has recently come to a halt in one of only two suppliers with whom the EU had signed a deal and this will undoubtedly result in further delays.
Despite this, Commissioner Šefčovič had tried to reassure the public by saying that EU authorities have “secured 2.3 billion vaccines that is much more than what Europe needs now and if we take those two vaccines that are already on the market, I am talking about Biontech Pfizer and Moderna, then we have enough vaccines at our disposal to vaccinate over 80 percent of the European population… We should not have any concerns about whether we will have enough good quality, safe and tested vaccines in Europe, and I am sure that in a few weeks or months we will have discussions about how to share even these vaccines with our neighbors in the East or Western Balkans.”
Despite a record numbers of infections and deaths in most European countries and a very limited supplies of vaccines, there are those who see the European Commission as playing down any cause for concern. In fact, Šefčovič is alluding to the EU already drawing up plans to supply countries outside the EU with surplus dozes, while the required amount is still nowhere in sight for EU member states.
When pressed about the delays, Šefčovič eventually admitted that they will need to top up existing orders by some 300 million more doses and that their two contracted manufacturers still do not have sufficient infrastructure to produce the required amounts. One of the manufacturers also reportedly reassured the Commission that after restructuring production lines that manufacturing will resume full capacity only on Jan. 25, and the supplies will start to rise only from Feb. 15. Šefčovič also acknowledged that the vaccine manufactured by Astra Zeneca has not even been approved yet, and the approval process is only expected to be concluded by the end of January.
It is of a particular embarrassment for European regulators that Britain, which had recently left the EU, is well ahead with its program with some 6 percent of the population already vaccinated, while the EU’s best-performing member state Denmark, lags behind with only 2.8 percent inoculated. Many other countries, such as Poland, Hungary or Portugal are just over 1 percent in the vaccination rate due to the severe shortage of the medicine. Israel, in contrast, is expected to have its entire population over 16 years of age inoculated by the end of March.
It is perhaps no wonder that many EU member states have lost confidence in the common European vaccine acquisition process and are going their own separate ways in protecting their populations. Hungary is leading the way in negotiations with suppliers from China and Russia, while other nations have also started ordering doses from manufacturers outside the European process. When asked about this, Šefčovič had only reaffirmed that he would prefer European countries to acquire their supplies via the common European process and only vaccines approved by European regulators. He had defended the relatively slow pace of the European acquisition process with the argument that the “EU wanted to be more rigorous in testing the vaccine than other regions.”
In the meantime, in Commissioner Šefčovič’s native country of Slovakia, the government had again resorted to a large-scale testing of the population and have prolonged the curfew that has been in place for weeks. Due to an increased number of COVID-19 related deaths, mortuaries in some Slovakian regions are reported to be filled with the bodies of the deceased, and refrigerated trucks are being hired by several hospitals in order to store large numbers of bodies. Funeral homes are also stretched to the limit and reportedly are struggling to cremate or bury the deceased fast enough.