The EU is “not where it wants to be” with its coronavirus immunisation programme, Ursula von der Leyen has conceded, as she faced MEPs in the European parliament amid mounting criticism of the bloc’s slow deployment of vaccines.
“We were late to authorise,” the European commission president said. “We were too optimistic when it came to massive production, and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time. We need to ask ourselves why that is the case.”
The EU’s 27 members have has so far administered at least one dose to just 4% of their collective populations, compared with 66% in Israel, 19% in the UK and 13% in the US. The deployment has been dogged by late orders, slow approval and supply setbacks.
The chief of the EU’s executive said 26m doses had been delivered so far, and repeated her pledge that 70% of adults should be fully inoculated by the end of the summer. Several EU countries have administered more second doses than the UK.
Von der Leyen defended the collective procurement process, saying all governments had agreed it was “the right thing to do” and she could not imagine the consequences if “big member states had rushed in, leaving everyone else empty-handed”.
The three main parties in the European parliament backed the commission’s approach. “The key decisions were right,” Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right Christian Democrat European People’s party, said.
The Socialists and Democrats leader, Iratxe García, said that “fiasco, catastrophe and disaster” were terms that “ring very true to our citizens”, but added that the party saw no real alternative. “Criticism is necessary, but in a constructive spirit,” she said.
The commission ordered 2.3bn doses from six manufacturers, but with little public procurement experience is seen as having handled negotiations more like trade talks, focusing on price and liability rather than securing a maximum of shots fast.
Nor did the EU regret the more thorough approval process adopted by its regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), Von der Leyen said: “We’ve made a choice not to take shortcuts when it comes to safety or efficacy, and we defend that choice.”
She said there was “no compromise possible” when injecting “a biologically active substance into an individual who is in good health”, describing the “three to four additional weeks” needed for EMA authorisation as “an essential investment to establish confidence and ensure security”.
But the commission chief said the bloc was launching a new network of clinical trials to give regulators data more rapidly – potentially allowing faster authorisation – and also announced a taskforce to help boost vaccine production.
She said part of the blame lay with manufacturers. “We fully understand that difficulties will arise in the mass production of vaccines,” she said. “But Europe has invested billions of euros in advance. So now we all need predictability.”
Von der Leyen also defended the EU’s controversial vaccine transparency mechanism, saying the bloc would not restrict “companies honouring their contracts with the EU” and stressing an automatic exemption for exports to countries in the European economic area, the Balkans and 92 developing countries.
She said “mistakes were made” when the plan to curb exports initially threatened a hard vaccines border on the island of Ireland, causing outcry in London and Dublin. “I deeply regret that,” she said. “But in the end we got it right, and I can reassure you my commission will do its utmost to protect the peace of Northern Ireland.”
In a welcome boost to the EU’s programme, the German vaccine maker BioNTech said on Wednesday it had started production at its new facility in the town of Marburg.
The factory, whose launch was fast-tracked by German authorities, will produce mRNA, the active ingredient in BioNTech’s vaccine developed with US pharmaceutical company Pfizer.
It will then be purified and concentrated before being transported to a “production partner” to be finished. The EMA will carry out quality checks in February or March.