Brussels probes member states’ compliance with EU Covid vaccination strategy

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Brussels must probe EU governments’ compliance with its central procurement of coronavirus vaccines, as fears grow that member states will seek to strike their own deals to avoid possible supply shortages.

The European Commission must write to the 27 countries of the Union asking them to provide “all the necessary transparency” on any relationship with the pharmaceutical companies with which it has concluded agreements or discussions.

Tensions have grown over whether the commission has secured sufficient quantities of vaccines manufactured by BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna, the only two to have so far obtained approval from the EU medical regulator.

Germany has already placed several bilateral orders, including 30 million doses with BioNTech / Pfizer and 20 million doses with CureVac, which – like BioNTech – is a German company. Cyprus has requested additional jab supplies from its Mediterranean neighbor Israel, which has the highest vaccination rate in the world.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, had asked Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health, to write to the ministers of health of the Member States to verify that they “respected the provisions of our vaccination strategy”, a declared Monday the European executive. Countries would be asked to provide details on “the contacts – or rather the lack of contact – with the pharmaceutical companies with which we have been or are negotiating,” the commission added.

Health workers in a retirement home in Nicosia. Cyprus asked Israel if it had spare vaccines © Christina Assi / AFP / Getty

Brussels has assembled a portfolio of more than 2 billion doses of seven different vaccines as part of a vaccine strategy designed to cover the 446 million inhabitants of the EU. But the program drew criticism from some politicians, including Markus Söder, prime minister of the German state of Bavaria, who said “too few of the right vaccines have been ordered and the price debates have gone on for too long” .

Other German politicians have questioned whether the country should have been part of bloc-wide government procurement. Political party leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), criticized the government for delegating vaccine procurement to Brussels. SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz demanded more transparency and presented the Health Minister with a four-page questionnaire on Berlin and the EU’s vaccine strategy.

In contrast, other diplomats from member states have privately questioned whether the bilateral German jab purchases were in line with the letter and spirit of the EU vaccine strategy.

The committee said member states are free to purchase additional vaccines, but only if they do not affect the delivery of doses agreed under EU agreements or involve “side negotiations” that could undermine the strategy of the bloc. Brussels decided on Friday to boost confidence in the EU’s vaccine purchasing program by announcing a provisional deal to double the Union’s access to the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine to 600 million doses.

Other EU member states are also exploring how to speed up the rollout of their vaccines. President Nicos Anastasiades asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, if Israel could spare a vaccine, the Cypriot government said. Mr Netanyahu said he would check and respond, Cyprus added.

Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv

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