The European Union's 27-nation vaccine strategy is splintering as member states turn to nations outside the bloc to boost a faltering rollout plagued by supply issues, contract skirmishes and sluggish takeup.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced Monday that he intends to work with Israel and Denmark on future vaccine production and cooperation around developing further shots to combat new coronavirus mutations. He will visit Israel with Danish leader Mette Frederiksen on Thursday.
The Austrian leader has been sharply critical of the EU's vaccine strategy and the bloc's regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The EU authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in late December 2020, weeks after it had been granted approval in the UK and US.
Brussels has opted for a centralized approach to vaccine procurement and distribution but its plan has been hindered by supply and distribution problems. Only 5.5% of the EU's population of 447 million has received a first vaccine dose, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).
The EMA has authorized three vaccines — Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna — but EU countries can individually give emergency authorization to other shots, as the UK did in December, when it was still in the post-Brexit transition period.
“The European Medicines Agency is too slow in terms of authorization of pharmaceutical companies,” Kurz said according to ORF. “That is why we have to prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent on the EU when it comes to vaccine production of the second generation.”
Frederiksen, the Danish Prime Minister, made similar comments Monday. “The European vaccine effort can no longer stand alone,” she said, adding that this was why Denmark and Austria were cooperating to obtain more doses.
Other EU nations have turned to Russia and China to plug the gaps in vaccine supply through unilateral procurements. On Monday, Slovakia granted emergency authorization for Moscow's Sputnik V vaccine, following a delay in supply of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca shots.
The EMA has not yet given the green light to the Sputnik V vaccine. “The [Slovakia] approval is based on the results of the clinical trials of Sputnik V in Russia and a comprehensive assessment of the vaccine by experts in Slovakia,” the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which backed Sputnik V's production, said Monday.
“We have received numerous requests from EU states to provide Sputnik V directly to them based on the reviews of their national agencies,” Kirill Dmitriev, RDIF CEO said in a statement. “We will continue to do so as well as work with EMA based on the rolling review procedure we initiated in January.”
Slovakia is the second EU country to independently grant Sputnik V authorization after Hungary, which began rolling out the vaccine in February. Hungary is also the first EU country to have rolled out China's Sinopharm vaccine, which has not been approved by the EMA.
“Vaccination is not a political issue, it is a matter of effectiveness and reliability,” Hungary's secretary of state for international communication and relations, Zoltan Kovacs, told CNN on Monday. “We see that both the Chinese as well as the Russian vaccines are being used around the globe in many places.”
Hungary has also ordered doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines through the EU, but Kovacs said the bloc's centralized strategy had failed to meet expectations. “Well, it's obvious and visible by now that that strategy compared to say the UK, Israel, even the United States, failed,” he said.
“The Brussels bureaucracy was not able to come up with fast and immediate resolutions regarding the contracts, we are lagging behind at least two months.”
Hungary has long been an outlier in Europe, with its leaders regularly clashing with EU chiefs over human rights policy. But Hungary is far from the only country frustrated by the bloc's handling of the vaccine rollout.
Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman indicated to CNN affiliate Prima News on Sunday that his country may roll out Sputnik V if it is authorized by the domestic regulator. “I wrote to President Putin requesting the delivery of Sputnik-V. If I am properly informed, this request will be granted, but of course we will need the [medical regulator] certification,” he said.
“If various people warn us against having a Russian or Chinese vaccine, then it is good to tell them that the vaccine has no ideology,” he added.
The fracturing of the EU's centralized strategy comes amid an evolution within the bloc about the AstraZeneca vaccine. France previously said it should only be administered in people under the age of 65, citing a lack of clinical data on its efficacy for older people.
But Paris has now extended the upper age limit to 75. According to Reuters, there are now fears that the government's initial critical comments have led to lower take up of the shot in the country.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) released Monday suggests that a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine is highly effective against severe infection and hospitalization among elderly populations. The Pfizer vaccine was also found to have a similar effect, according to the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
At a Downing Street press conference on Monday, England's deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said the data “clearly vindicated” the UK's decision to vaccinate all age groups from the beginning of the rollout process. “I'm not here to criticize other countries but I do say that I think in time, the data emerging from our program will speak for itself and other countries will doubtless be very interested in it,” he added.
EU leaders are now focused on getting the bloc's inoculation campaign back on track. “Our top priority now is speeding up the production and delivery of vaccines and vaccinations across the European Union,” European Council President Charles Michel said last week.
“It's why we support the Commission's efforts to work with industry to identify bottlenecks guarantee supply chains and scale up production. And we want more predictability and transparency to ensure that pharmaceutical companies comply with the commitments,” he added.
The bloc now faces a race to fix the vaccine rollout while retaining the faith of jittery member states looking elsewhere for solutions.