‘They have played God with people’s lives’: The story behind Europe’s AstraZeneca blame game
Written by Hit Music Radio News on 24/03/2021
This is the story about mistrust, anger, blame and death. It’s about a relationship that started with high hopes and has now collapsed into acrimony and mistrust.
It’s the story of Europe’s vaccine rollout, but it may not be the story that you think it is.
Because this isn’t really about the EU going toe-to-toe with the British government.
Instead, it’s a story of how a company has come to dominate the politics, and perhaps the health, of a continent; of how a vaccine that was supposed to be the answer has instead become a curious mixture of medicine and poison.
“Our row is not with the UK government, it’s with AstraZeneca,” one senior diplomat told me. “But that row is a very profound one. They have played God with people’s lives, made promises they can’t keep, and let us down. And now people are going to die.”
Over the past few months, I have spoken to a long line of people involved in this, from the most senior officials and diplomats in Brussels through to people queuing up to get vaccinated. I wanted to know why Europe had fallen behind, and what impact it had on the continent.
And one word keeps coming up: “AstraZeneca”. It has become a byword for controversy, doubt and delay.
Among the European public, it is the problem child of vaccines. Among diplomats, it is the company that found the answer, but then didn’t want to share it with Europe.
So is that fair? Is it just a handy excuse to explain bureaucratic blunders, political showmanship and vaccine scepticism?
Or do they have a point?
Before we get into the details, let’s start with the basics. There’s no denying that Europe’s vaccine rollout is much, much slower than the UK’s.
Across the European Union, just over 11% of people have been given the first dose. In the UK, that figure is way past 40%.
Yes, Europe has given the second dose to a bigger proportion of people, so a higher share of the population is “fully vaccinated” but that’s not really the point, and nobody pretends it is. The simple truth is that the UK has done a lot better at getting jabs in arms than Europe.
And that’s the bit you probably already knew. But the question is why? How is it that a country as wealthy, well-prepared and efficient as Germany, can have vaccinated only 10.8% of its people with the first dose of a vaccine.
BioNTech, the company that created its vaccine alongside Pfizer, is a German company; the German health system is formidable. And yet here it is with a vaccination rate a quarter of the UK’s.
So what’s going on? Well, that is when we get to the acrimony and the bitter disputes. “In some ways this is worse than Brexit,” one EU diplomat said to me. “That was about disagreements, about tough negotiation. This is about lives, and also about lies.”
At the heart of this are two contracts, drawn up separately by AstraZeneca. One with the British government and one with the European Commission, acting on behalf of the 27 member states of the European Union. One under British law, one under Belgian.
They are worded in slightly different ways, but both oblige the company to make its best efforts to deliver the number of doses. The UK one is more detailed, with more reference to “punishment clauses” if it is not fulfilled.
Both list places where the vaccine will be made, with some facilities appearing on both. And, depending on your interpretation, both seem to give the impression that they have primacy.
The contracts were formally signed within a day of each other in August, although the UK signed an initial agreement with the company three months earlier and the government had offered funding to the Oxford University vaccine project even earlier than that.
Whatever the similarities, the outcomes have been very different, at least in the mind of European politicians. The EU expected to receive between 90million and 120 million doses by the end of March, reaching a total of 300 million, with the option to buy a further 100 million.
Instead, back in January, the company admitted it wouldn’t hit its targets, the catalyst for a very public spat, and threats of legal action.
The problem was that the threat carried very little weight, according to one diplomat involved in the row: “It sounded good, but it was pointless because by the time we ever ended up in court, even if we won, it was going to take two years to resolve. By then, we’ll be swimming in vaccine.”
Instead, AstraZeneca eventually agreed to supply 40 million doses to the EU by the end of March. Nobody now expects that to happen – as of yesterday (Wednesday 24 March), just 17 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine had been delivered to EU countries.
Let’s put that into context. So far, those member states of the European Union have received a total of just under 71 million doses of vaccine from all the different manufacturers combined.
Of these, the vast majority of doses, nearly 48 million, have come from Pfizer/BioNTech.
But imagine if the world were different – if AstraZeneca had not delivered 17 million doses, but had instead come up with the 90 million doses that it once promised to deliver by the end of March. That would have doubled the continent’s supply of vaccines.
Basic maths suggests that, if AstraZeneca had delivered that amount of vaccine, then, even allowing for the need to stockpile some supplies in case of production problems, Europe’s vaccination rate would now be running at somewhere around 25% – a figure that would look a lot better, and more comforting, than the sluggish levels we now see.
AstraZeneca declined to comment to Sky News about the comments made in this article. People close to the company’s vaccine projects have said that they are disappointed about missing targets but feel they have worked round the clock to produce vaccines. The scale of the challenge they have met, they say, was unprecedented, so production problems were similarly hard to predict.
In a statement, the company said that it would now aim to deliver 30 million doses to the EU by the end of March, and 100 million by the end of June – a third of the original target.
“We have been let down terribly,” said one diplomat. “I think we can look back and say that we made mistakes – that we didn’t do enough due diligence, that we could have planned better – but the fact is that we spent many hundreds of millions of Euros ordering vaccines that have, so far, not turned up.”
The evidence of that mistrust sits in fridges all over Europe – stockpiles of AstraZeneca vaccines waiting to be used.
Many have seen this as proof that the EU rollout is disorganised. Instead, multiple diplomats insisted to me, it is proof of something else.
“We have to now assume that we will never get the jabs that we were promised, in the numbers we expected,” said a diplomat from one EU country. “And we know that the AstraZeneca vaccine needs two jabs. So when we give someone the first dose, we have to put the second one in a fridge and keep it for 12 weeks, so they can be guaranteed of receiving it.
“If we trusted the company to fulfil its promises, we wouldn’t have to be so cautious. But we just don’t know if and when we’ll get anything arriving with an AstraZeneca label on it.”
Trust is a crucial concept here. The recent pause in use of the vaccine divided opinion around Europe, with some nations following the caution-first approach of the Germans, and others persevering. Britain gave official approval to the AstraZeneca vaccine weeks before Europe, while America still hasn’t given it regulatory approval.
French President Emmanuel Macron called it “quasi-ineffective” after an initial plan to restrict its use in older people.
Now, in a somewhat baffling volte-face, the French have decided to only give it to older people. You can understand people being confused, which has fed a streak of vaccine scepticism that runs deep in some countries, including France.
I haven’t spoken to anyone within Europe’s medical or political circles who doubts the efficacy of these doses. “Our problem is not with the vaccine, because we think that it’s safe and effective,” said one diplomat, summing up the opinion of many others. “Our problem is with the company that makes it.”
The curiosity here is that AstraZeneca is half British, and half Swedish. It has strong links to the European Union, and an international profile.
Its commitment to a low-cost vaccine, sold to support global health rather than corporate profit, was lauded. And yet now, the company finds itself derided while the likes of Pfizer, whose vaccines are much more expensive, have been held up as models of good reliability and collaboration.
Even that low-cost offer is now seen as part of the problem.
While the EU’s wealthier nations invested in every vaccine programme, some of Europe’s poorer countries, particularly in the east of the bloc, decided that they would rely entirely on AstraZeneca doses, due to their low cost.
Now, without the supplies they had banked on, their rollouts are desperately slow. Bulgaria, for instance, has given a first dose to just 5.5% of its population.
The pandemic has exposed all sorts of flaws within the European Union. In its earliest days, countries reverted to taking their own decisions rather than following diktats from Brussels.
The procurement of vaccines started as an action by a small group of countries, before being taken over by the European Commission. Countries from north and south have argued, bitterly, about the way to restructure Europe’s battered finances.
Amidst it, Ursula von der Leyen, the German president of the Commission, has struggled to communicate. As a doctor, she understands the science, but she appears to lack the diplomatic heft or elegance of predecessors.
The decision to invoke Article 16, in order to block vaccines crossing the Irish border, was an idiotic misstep, withdrawn after howls of protest from members states who did not know it was coming.
And, yes, when EU diplomats now look towards the UK, there is no disguising the jealousy they feel over the speed of the vaccine rollout.
Across the EU, even in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, there are people in their 80s who don’t know when they’ll get vaccinated. Who wouldn’t envy Britain’s pace and efficiency?
But there is also a sense that the UK’s success is, at least partly, built upon a reliable supply of vaccines that has been denied to European nations that drew up contacts with the same company, for the same product, signed at roughly the same time and for the same price, and for vaccines that were made in factories in both the EU and the UK.
The EU is fond of pointing out that it has exported about 10 million vaccine doses to the UK, and has received not a single one in return.
Now, a third wave approaches Europe. Brussels, the centre of this diplomatic storm, is about to return to a form of lockdown, with schools and shops closing.
Infection rates are rising fast in most EU countries and the spectre of an export ban, or at least much tighter scrutiny, looms large. Individual factories are being scrutinised, questions are asked about which ingredient is made in which country, and how supply chains might be reshaped.
In the UK, the vaccine rollout has been a success, but in Europe it is a more complex and controversial picture.
There is a saying in marketing that you should always under-promise, and over-deliver – there are plenty of people across the continent who believe AstraZeneca have done precisely the opposite.
Watch Through The Storm: Inside The COVID Wards on Sky Documentaries on Thursday at 9pm and on Sky News on Friday at 9pm.
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