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EU leaders wrestle with vaccine woes as Biden drops in

  • The Europeans are angry that UK-based pharma giant AstraZeneca has failed to meet its vaccine delivery promises to the EU while ensuring smoother supplies to former member Britain.
25 Mar 2021

BRUSSELS: A welcome guest appearance by US President Joe Biden will do little to mask the danger of Europe's looming third wave of coronavirus infections at Thursday's EU video summit.

The new US president will address the 27 EU leaders by video link in the evening as Washington and Brussels put on a show of mending ties after the dramatic diplomatic battles of the Donald Trump years.

But his intervention will only be a brief respite from the main matter at hand: How to outpace the resurgent epidemic when drug deliveries came up short and vaccination campaigns started slowly?

Host Charles Michel, the president of the leaders' European Council, had hoped to hold a substantive face-to-face summit but was forced by lockdown travel concerns to accept a stripped down video conference.

The Europeans are angry that UK-based pharma giant AstraZeneca has failed to meet its vaccine delivery promises to the EU while ensuring smoother supplies to former member Britain.

But they are also squabbling among themselves over how to share the vaccines they have received, and not all are happy with the European Commission's threat to block some vaccine exports.

Draft conclusions, seen by AFP, nod in support of EU chief Ursula von der Leyen's move on exports, but also warn that Europe must step up its own game when it comes to vaccine production.

"Accelerating the production, delivery and deployment of vaccines remains essential and urgent to overcome the crisis. Efforts to this end must be further intensified," the draft says.

"We underline the importance of transparency as well as of the use of export authorisations," it says.

"We reaffirm that companies must ensure predictability of their vaccine production and respect contractual delivery deadlines."

French President Emmanuel Macron reflected this mood when he admitted on the eve of the summit that Europe had lacked ambition while the United States, in particular, forged ahead.

"We weren't quick enough, strong enough on this," he told Greece's ERT television.

"It's quite true and we thought that the vaccine would take time to take off."

The European Commission updated its month-old control mechanism on Wednesday, giving the bloc more power to block vaccine shipments to countries like Britain that produce jabs but do not export them.

The leaders will not be asked to vote on the measure, already provisionally applied, at Thursday's summit, and most would back it if it helps pressure AstraZeneca to boost its deliveries.

But some -- like UK neighbour Ireland, and vaccine producers Belgium and the Netherlands -- are wary of any move to block exports from operations like Pfizer/BioNTech, which supplies both the EU and UK.

If the pharmaceutical industry's global supply chains are disrupted, many countries could lose out, as both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government and von der Leyen's commission accept.

"We are all facing the same pandemic and the third wave makes cooperation between the EU and UK even more important," they said, in a joint statement released to calm nerves after the EU tightened its rules.

The cross-Channel rivals are in discussions about how "to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens" but have yet to come to agreement on how to share AstraZeneca doses.

The firm has delivered to the EU only 19 million of the 30 million doses it had promised in the first quarter -- and that pledge was itself a dramatic reduction from the 120 million it contracted for.

Brussels' focus has turned to a plant in the Netherlands which the UK had planned to use for its own supplies and Johnson is worried that Brussels could cut Britain off from other EU-made vaccines.

A European diplomat told reporters that the UK and the Commission are negotiating how to better share AstraZeneca doses, and that the EU must not shoulder the shortfall alone.

Another sensitive issue is sharing out the vaccines Europe has already received under the Commission's joint buying strategy.