French pharmaceutical startup Valneva was awarded a government contract for 60 million doses of a candidate for the coronavirus vaccine in September, a supply the European Union now desperately needs as it fails to keep pace with vaccination rates.
Buyer? Great Britain – not the European Union, as one would expect from a company on the banks of the Loire.
“What a waste,” said Christelle Morancais, president of the Pays de la Loire regional council, as she tried to cover her head with a missed opportunity. The British, he told The Associated Press, “rolled out the red carpet for this company, helped finance and setup. … And we were helpless.”
Britain has now ordered another 40 million doses and has more options than Valneva, who has a plant in Scotland. The EU is still in talks with the company.
The UK’s early, aggressive investment pattern while the EU takes a slower and more cautious approach has become the hallmark of the European vaccine race – and offers a window into the problems that have hindered the launch of vaccinations by the world’s largest trading bloc.
Like any other fast moving country, Negotiating the previous contract has helped Britain avoid some of the vaccine supply problems The 27 EU countries have faced – such as when AstraZeneca said they had production problems. President Valneva Franck Grimaud told the AP that Britain would receive an earlier dose of the vaccine because it was signed earlier.
But the UK has also demonstrated speed and agility in other areas: Its regulatory agency has approved vaccines sooner than the EU, and its government has experimented with extending the time between shots – allowing it to launch the first dose faster so more people can do it. have protection on the fly.
The European Union is more careful in both of these matters. While the block still procures and distributes vaccines – unlike most of the world – it has so far been left in the British rearview mirror. The UK has provided at least one chance for about 15% of its population, compared to around 3% in the bloc. It’s not just a matter of pride: the European Union has lost more than 490,000 of its 450 million inhabitants to the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University, and countless others who were not tested before they died.
Diane Wanten, from Alken, Belgium, survived the COVID-19 attack that saw her undergo intensive care last spring. The 62-year-old is now looking forward to getting a shot for herself and her husband Francesco, who has Parkinson’s. “If tomorrow there is a vaccine for me, I’ll stand in line,” he said.
On the contrary, “it is England that towers over the rest,” Wanten said. “I keep asking myself why are things possible there and not here in Belgium?”
Britain has a fight of its own: the death toll is 112,000 in a country of 67 million and many say the Conservative government should move faster to fight the virus. Still, they celebrate Valneva’s contract as a validation of her vaccine strategy – and her decision to leave the EU.
“We have supported many horses – no matter where they come from,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “This is a great example of what we can achieve together, working as one British.”
At the same time, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is at the European Parliament, answering questions about how things went wrong in an effort that should show how the EU strengthens its 27 members.
He acknowledged the mistakes of the European Union – in particular the threat, which was finally lifted, from border checks on vaccines from EU member Ireland to Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. But he is adamant that the deliberate block attempt will prove successful.
“I see this as a marathon where we have just completed the first few kilometers,” he said.
But in Marseille, France, the head of the intensive care ward at La Timone Hospital fears the European Union is tripping over the starting line.
“There’s clearly a lack of anticipation. Then a shortage of doses. Then we don’t vaccinate the right people,” said Dr. Julien Carvelli.
When the virus took over the continent a year ago and the race for a vaccine started, the European Union declared its size an asset in vaccine negotiations. The block does get a competitive price, but it takes time – and the difference of several months has cost it.
When The European Union had a major dispute with AstraZeneca last month Upon announcing the company would only be able to deliver 31 million doses of the promised first batch of 80 million, CEO Pascal Soriot pointed out that “the UK contract was signed three months before the European vaccine deal. So with the UK, we have an extra three months to fix all the glitches. “
Luck also plays a role. Many vaccine deals are signed before anyone knows which shots will work or be produced first. The EU signed a contract with Germany-based CureVac in November, while Britain just signed the deal a few days ago – but, so far, that’s not a problem as the company is still testing its vaccine.
The EU has also been slower to approve vaccines, opting for a longer process that provides fuller oversight of the European Medicines Agency, rather than emergency authorizations, to ensure greater public confidence, a decision that is still being maintained.
As a result, the UK started giving vaccine shots on 8 December The European Union will not attend until December 27. It hasn’t caught up since then.
French European Minister Clement Beaune said, “Britain has taken a very big risk.”
If that’s true, it pays off. Britain’s health chief last week praised a new study showing that a single dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine offers 12 weeks of strong protection against the virus, saying it supports the government’s much-debated strategy to delay a second injection.
Compare this to the French, who were tempted by extending the time between doses but decided against it. Other EU countries sometimes withhold doses to ensure one person can get a second injection at a certain time, thus rejecting the first injection for someone else.
Several EU countries have also been shown to be more risk-averse than the cautious EMA, which approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the EU for all adults, although there are some questions about whether there is insufficient data on its impact on the elderly.
Germany, France and Sweden decided to postpone the AstraZeneca vaccine to those aged 65 and over. Belgium goes a step further, limiting use to those under 55, even if it means carefully crafted vaccination plans must be changed.
The EU’s deliberate approach, however, may have prevented other problems. Without a common strategy, the smaller and poorer EU countries can struggle to get and pay for vaccines. With open borders, a distorted national approach can cause chaos.
Despite his slow start, von der Leyen pledges to have 70% of block adults vaccinated by the end of summer.
For now, he leaves Catherine Moureaux, mayor of the town of Molenbeek in Brussels, overseeing an empty vaccination center. But he didn’t complain.
“We do not regret the fact that Europe is playing carefully,” said Moureaux. “I think this is a good thing.”