Von Der Leyen Defends EU Vaccination Drive as Exports Rise

The head of the European Union’s executive arm mounted a spirited defense of the bloc’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign, taking a swipe at countries like the U.S. and the U.K. as she hailed her region as the world’s top vaccines exporter.

“Our European vaccination campaign is a success,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told an online conference. “What counts is the steadily increasing daily delivery of vaccines to our people -- and to the world.”

“Some might say that countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom have been faster at the beginning,” von der Leyen said. “But I say: Europe achieved this success, while remaining open to the world. While others keep their vaccine production for themselves, Europe is the main exporter of vaccines worldwide.”

The EU’s vaccine production capacity has kept the global roll-out of shots going, even as it dealt with early setbacks in its inoculation campaign, especially delays by AstraZeneca Plc. Governments initially criticized the commission’s handling of the program but the bloc’s vaccination push has picked up pace in recent weeks.

Vaccine Exports

Over the past months, the EU has exported more than 200 million doses to the rest of the world. “Europe is the only democratic region in the world that exports vaccines on a large scale,” she said.

Officials in Brussels and in EU capitals, however, see no quick fix, with discussions at the World Trade Organization taking at least 12 to 15 months, and the result possibly only a partial waiver not covering mRNA technology. The priorities instead are boosting donations to the Covax vaccine-access initiative for poorer countries, persuading the U.S. and the UK to lift their export curbs, and ramping up global production.

Exports from the bloc have gone to more than 90 countries, including many in the developing world as well as allies such as the U.K., which has received a total of 28 million doses from the continent, and Japan, which has received 72 million.

The EU is ready to discuss a U.S. proposal to waive intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines, von der Leyen said, though she emphasized that it’s more important to focus on production. “In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt the supply chains,” she said.

Supply is expected to reach 410 million doses in the second quarter after agreements with Pfizer Inc. to boost EU deliveries and bring forward some shots expected later in the year.

Beyond Vaccines

More than 30% of the bloc’s adult population has received a first dose, EU Health Chief Stella Kyriakides said Thursday. But she cautioned that vaccines cannot be the only response to Covid-19 given the challenges new variants pose to the management of the pandemic and the need to ensure those infected are treated.

“Vaccinations are a life-saving game changer, but they will not end the pandemic from one day to another. For that, we will also need to treat the disease, not just inoculate our citizens against it,” Kyriakides said.

Her comments came as she unveiled a new strategy to step up the EU’s work on therapeutics. The push aims to complement the EU’s strategy for Covid-19 vaccines in the medium term and highlights how the bloc expects the management of Covid to be a key priority even after a significant segment of its population is fully vaccinated.

Under the proposed plan, the bloc should jointly procure, develop and authorize effective Covid-19 treatments, as it seeks to secure supplies of potentially critical drugs after the acute phase of the pandemic has passed.

Securing such treatments will limit the need for hospitalization, speed up recovery times and ultimately save lives of citizens across the bloc, the commission said. Its aim is to develop and authorize three new therapeutics available by October 2021 and possibly two more by year-end. At the moment, Remdesivir is the only Covid-19 treatment authorized at EU level.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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