28 January 2021

The flailing EU blames Big Pharma for its own failings

By Oni Oviri

Like a scene from an Isaac Asimov novel, in the European Parliament the MEP robots abandoned the group program and rebelled as if a rogue virus had infected them. The robots turned on each other as they protested about the lack of vaccine supply.

“The Germans are undertaking parallel procurement of vaccines!”, one robot cried out in exasperation. Another expressed its dismay at the lack of transparency in the procurement process, “Why are parts of the contracts blanked out? Particularly in the logistics section!” An Austrian robot opened its three-minute tirade with laboured irony, declaring that the EU should “first, provide a vaccination against their bureaucracy!”.

The spectacle continued, with another robot decrying Hungarian politicians. It accused the country’s prime minister Viktor Orban of using the procurement of vaccinations as a way to peddle populism. Indeed, the Hungarians have also hedged their bets by parallel procurement of the Russian Sputnik vaccine. They have followed Germany’s example of ‘Do as I say not as I do’. In an interview with a local state radio programme, Orban raged:, “We will not wait for bungling eurocrats to dish out doses while Hungarians are dying.”

Meanwhile at a hastily arranged press conference, Chief Robot Ursula Von Der Leyen, the Commission president, jumped to the defence of her home country; “We’re all working together”. Who knew that robots could lie? 

While Europe flounders, the UK is accelerating ahead at wartime speed (if not quite Israel’s warp speed), EU countries are trailing in Britain’s wake. Perfidious Albion, which has in recent weeks been referred to in the European press as “plague island” and “starvation island”, seems not to be as disorganised after Brexit as some predicted. The UK was first out of the gate because the Government sensibly shortened the Covid-19 vaccine insurance process. By underwriting pharmaceutical companies’ product liability as early as July 2020, the UK short-circuited the procurement process by four months compared to the EU, which continued to insist on producer liability.

Another issue for the EU lay with the centralised procurement strategy itself, meant to ensure member states would not compete against each other in obtaining vaccines from the monopolistic pharmaceutical companies. A recent report by the UK Vaccine Taskforce commented that the UK chose not to participate in the joint purchasing with the EU as it would have meant they had no say in vaccine choice or key contract terms – another good move by our much-maligned government.

European Member states did not have to join the procurement consortium, and this has ultimately meant a lack of transparency over the detail in the contracts. The European Commission responded to this by setting up a ‘reading room’, to allow member states to study the vaccine procurement contracts. Bizarrely so far there is only one contract available – CureVac Inc., a little-known German-Dutch company listed on NASDAQ that is in Phase III clinical trials.

Sandra Gallina, the EU’s lead negotiator on vaccine contracts, faced aggressive questions on the lack of vaccines and clarity of contracts from members of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee. Her blocking response that “we are starting with one contract because that company has agreed to disclose the contract” was peculiarly evasive.

European Council President Charles Michel has also had to wade in, holding a press conference to call for urgent “transparent dialogue” from all the vaccine producers. Faced with its own failures, the EU is trying to shift the blame on to the pharmaceutical companies.

However, BioNTech, one of the vaccine providers, puts the responsibility for this fiasco firmly at the EU’s door. The head of the firm, Uğur Şahin, said Brussels had wrongly assumed that several different vaccines would be ready at the same time and spread its orders out accordingly, while also nit-picking over price. Sahin went on to say: “It would seem that the impression was: ‘We’ll get enough, it won’t be so bad, and we have this under control.’ It surprised me.”

The logistics risks

Another problem was the lack of planning behind the entire EU logistical vaccine supply chain. England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, raised three risk aspects in December that the Government would need to manage as they prepared to roll out the vaccines.

This included the logistical challenges of delivering the vaccine to the point of use whether in surgeries or mass vaccination sites. This is clearly going well as by January 23 the UK had given almost 10% of its population at least one vaccine shot, compared to 2% in German and 1.5% in France.

Van-Tam also identified the risks of lack of capacity for ‘Fill-and-Finish’, where doses of the vaccine are put into glass vials. This announcement brought overblown media claims that the UK might run out of vials just as it ran out of PPE. This has not transpired. The last critical aspect identified by Van-Tam was security; both ensuring the supply side is protected in effective cold-chain distribution and from other security risks, such as tampering and theft of the vaccines.

But there remains one risk which supersedes all the others, a bottleneck that governments could not easily prepare for – the pharmaceutical companies’ inability to meet demand. Thus far, the UK’s advance procurement planning seems to have successfully dealt with this issue, albeit with a few hiccups.

Europe, on the other hand, has failed completely and Pfizer’s announcement of a delay has roused EU member states to bicker amongst themselves and deviate from their unified procurement stance. The EU nations have now abandoned the collective and moved to a Darwinian ‘Sauve qui peut’ mode. “Hungarians need the vaccine, not an explanation about why it is not available”, complains Viktor Orban. Evidently, Europe’s politicians are following Asimov’s famous Third Law of Robotics: “A robot must protect its own existence…”.

Pfizer’s and AstraZeneca’s explanation that the delay in supply is due to works needed to increase capacity at their respective factories has not cut the mustard with the Eurobots. Conspiracy theories abound. One Italian MEP thinks that Europe’s vaccines are being sold elsewhere at higher prices. This has led to the Italian and Polish premiers threatening legal action against Pfizer.

The defenders of the EU supply chain claim that the scale of the European vaccine procurement process is unprecedented. Indeed, it is. However, pleading naivety over the sheer scale of supply chain and logistical management required by a Covid-19 vaccination programme is not much of a defence, nor is blaming the pharmaceutical companies.

Ultimately, Europe’s vaccination catastrophe is not a story of bad luck, but of political and bureaucratic ineptitude. If only some of our own pro-European press, so quick to leap on any mistakes by the UK’s government, would let rip on the epic failure across the Channel. The politicians who described the decision to go it alone as “unforgivable” should also be eating a healthy slice of humble pie.

Then again, after so long predicting disaster, perhaps they cannot bring themselves to admit that Britain really can do some things better on its own.

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Oni Oviri, is a supply chain and logistics consultant and a Conservative councillor.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.