Von der Leyen and Simson: United against the virus

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Kadri Simson and Ursula von der Leyen. Source: European Commission/ERR

We want to work closely with scientists and the industry to be ready to develop, authorize and quickly produce vaccines that can address various COVID-19 variants. Most importantly, we want to scale up manufacturing capacities in Europe. Because vaccines are a common good and their importance will increase over time.

Last March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the Coronavirus outbreak had become a global pandemic. Today, not even a year later, three vaccines against the virus have been authorized in the EU. And there are more to come.

Normally the development of a vaccine takes around ten years. This time, it took us just ten months. The first vaccine against COVID19 was invented in Europe and is being produced on a large scale within the EU. Through our Advance Purchase Agreements, we gave vaccine developers up-front payments, not only to build up capacity to manufacture at scale, but also to produce vaccine doses for us. So that they could deliver right away, from the moment the vaccine is authorized. We have invested €2,9 billion upfront – not to mention the many billions that Europe invests every year in a research ecosystem that makes such successes possible. We expect European citizens to receive the benefits of this European investment.

Altogether the EU secured 2.3 billion doses of these vaccines for its citizens and its neighborhood. This was the right approach: staying united in our fight against the virus, working at the European level to tackle a virus that knows no borders. From the very beginning, we wanted every Member State, no matter how big or small, to have fair access to the vaccines. Just imagine what might have happened if only one or two Member States had access to the vaccines, which was a very real possibility without our collective negotiating power. What would that have meant for the single market and for our unity in Europe?

Instead the Commission worked hand-in-hand with all 27 national governments. Starting last June, we formed a steering board with the Member States. This board meets up to seven times a month. There is a constant flow of information, and all decisions are taken together. After screening more than 100 companies which at the time were researching a vaccine, we soon developed a portfolio of the six most promising ones. Last summer, nobody knew who in the end would be the forerunner. Today we know: the European Approach was the right choice. Now we have three authorized vaccines, and the three companies, BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Astra Zeneca started to deliver. And there is more to come.

Today, many of those who criticize our European approach speak about a lack of speed in decision-making. But could we have been much faster? Would a single Member State have been faster or an earlier contract a guarantee of earlier delivery in large quantities? We honestly do not think so. Producing a new vaccine is an incredibly complex and sensitive task. All three vaccine manufacturers that have been successful so far had to significantly reduce their deliveries for the start-up phase. Due to problems in production process or because important ingredients were in short supply.

After all, inoculating a vaccine means you inject a biological active substance in a healthy person. So, safety and efficacy have always been of utmost importance. This is why we did not take shortcuts in the authorization process with the European Medicine Agency (EMA). This process, which takes three to four weeks, was an investment in trust. And this explains, for example, why we started a bit later than the UK and the current difference in the number of vaccinations. But our vaccine roll-out is now underway, and citizens can be reassured that we have not cut any corners on safety.

In the EU, we started vaccination at the end of December. Now, five weeks later, companies have delivered around 20 million vaccine doses to the EU so far. In Estonia, around 35,000 people have already been vaccinated.

This is not yet enough. But it is not insignificant either. In February, EU countries will receive around 33 million doses and in March 55 million. In the second quarter of 2021, by conservative estimates, there should be 300 million additional doses delivered.

We will closely and vigilantly monitor this process. We understand that some companies have problems with mass production. After all, a production increase like this has never happened before. Just recently, the CEO of one company told us that in 2019 his company had produced 100,000 doses of vaccines. This year they plan to produce one billion! This is an incredible increase. We commend these efforts!

But we also need transparency as to where these vaccines are going. This is especially true when a company does not deliver on what it has promised to the European Union. This is the reason why we introduced a transparency and authorization mechanism: to have an overview of what has been exported and what will be exported. We have no intention to put restrictions on companies that honor their contracts – we just authorized two shipments to Canada and one shipment to the UK. But if a company tells us that they can't deliver on their EU orders, it is only right that we know what they are delivering to others.

While we are fighting the virus, it keeps changing. We are worried about new variants, even if we are reassured that our vaccines seem to combat them for now. But having learned our lessons, we want to prepare for a scenario, where the virus does not respond to the current vaccines anymore. This is why we convened the CEOs of vaccine companies and scientists some days ago. We agreed to carefully monitor how the virus develops, to make sure that this data is shared with the companies and with EMA. We want to work closely together with scientists and the industry, to be ready to develop, authorize and quickly produce vaccines that can address the variants too, And, most importantly, we want to scale up manufacturing capacities in Europe. Because vaccines are a common good and their importance will increase over time.

Our responsibility does not end at Europe's borders. It does not end when most European adults have been vaccinated. This is why from the very first day we called for a global response to the pandemic. The Commission organized two pledging sessions that raised €16 billion. And we helped to set up the Covax facility to make sure that high-income countries invest in vaccine supply for low- and middle-income countries. Together with the Members States as Team Europe we are one of the largest contributors to Covax with €870 million.

This pandemic is a difficult moment for Europe and the world. We are together in this fight and we need to stay united – against our common enemy, the virus.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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