27 April 2021

Suing AstraZeneca is just the latest instalment of the EU’s vaccination clown show

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Searching the CapX archives for articles on the EU and AstraZeneca, words ike “fiasco” and “mad” appear with alarming regularity. News that the Commission is now suing the drugmaker for allegedly failing to fulfil its contract is somehow both gut-wrenching and completely unsurprising.

Never mind that AstraZeneca produced an effective, safe vaccine within a year, and supplied it at cost price. Never mind, either, that suing them will have no effect on any current supply issues. This is about sending a message.

The EU presumably hopes that the message is “we’re tough, tough cookies, don’t mess with us or you’ll get sued too”. Which is fine, except it’s also likely to be interpreted as “don’t do business with us or you risk getting sued”. Nor is it a particularly subtle attempt to deflect attention and blame from the EU’s slow, ponderous start to the vaccine rollout and its increasingly bizarre subsequent interventions.

Now, you might argue that the EU is entitled to fight its corner if it feels the other side hasn’t held up its end of the bargain. They might even get a bit of money back, though compared to the literally trillions they are spending on various bailouts it’s unlikely to do much to repair the continent’s battered finances.

But it’s not even at all clear that the EU will win the case if it does end up in court. For one thing, Politico reports that consultants Deloitte warned the Belgian government that the EU’s contract with AstraZeneca “does not provide for sanctions when the delivery dates and quantities are not respected”. The EU is apparently trying to strike down a clause in the same contract that specifically stipulates that Astra cannot be sued for failing to deliver a certain quantity of vaccines on time.

Beyond the legal arguments, the citizens of countries still very much in the grip of a deadly pandemic will wonder why on earth their politicians’ energies are directed at suing a drugmaker rather than on boosting supply and getting people’s lives back to normal as quickly as possible.

Of course, this is hardly the first time the EU has tried to play its brand of lame hardball. There were the silly, untrue accusations about Britain blocking vaccine exports, the claims from various leaders that the AZ vaccine didn’t actually work properly (cheers, Emmanuel!) topped off with the ludicrous threats to stop the exports of vaccines from EU member states. Throughout, the Brussels hierarchy seemed to equate a vaccine made on the EU’s territory as an “EU vaccine”, as if the (super)state can simply expropriate anything manufactured on its turf.

That things should have come to this pass is especially intolerable, given that AZ offered up its labour and expertise to the world for no profit. Big companies regularly do immoral, ghastly things and rightly get hauled over the coals for it. But let’s give them credit when they do something as emphatically right as this.

The Director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, put it succinctly in a tweet last night:

What a stark contrast not only to the UK, which has relied heavily on AZ’s cheap, easily distributed vaccine, but also from the Biden administration, which is now preparing to dole out 60 million spare doses of the jab to other countries in dire need.

This isn’t just another chance to slag off the barmy Eurocrats, it has potentially very serious consequences. The most obvious concern being that if there were, God forbid, another pandemic any time soon, pharmaceutical companies will run a mile before dealing with the EU.

There might be a broader risk though, which is that businesses not necessarily involved in pharmaceuticals will look at Brussels and think twice about signing big ticket contracts in case the same things happen to them. Either that, or they will factor in the risk of getting sued and jack up prices to hedge the risk.

For Britain, of course, this represents a golden opportunity, to cast ourselves as an island of common sense in an ocean of nonsense. It’s not just vaccines, of course. From GM food to gene editing, there are all manner of cutting edge areas where Britain can do things better outside the EU’s orbit. And thanks to Brussels’ ham-fisted approach to the pandemic, persuading companies to set up shop here has become that little bit easier.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.