Some voices are being raised in France in the face of Europe’s slowness in lagging behind our vaccination strategy, one of the key conditions for returning to normal life.
The Americans and the British understood very early on that it was necessary to invest to finance the research of vaccines in the laboratories which could develop them and produce them quickly. This funding naturally gave them a priority right over future vaccine deliveries.
If one applies to criticize the EU in this area, it should be remembered that health is not part of the competences of the EU for historical reasons which are not to call into question national sovereignty (principle of subsidiarity, sic) – old fashioned today – but again and perhaps above all because of restrictive budgetary policies in certain member countries or short-sighted decisions by industrial sectors in others.
The so-called cumbersome community decisions
Without waiting for the outcome of an uncertain institutional debate on its responsibilities when it leaves its prerogatives, the EU courageously realized in June 2020 that it was necessary to act quickly even when no one expected vaccines are available before the second half of 2021.
On June 17, the Commission launched a call for tenders from the most advanced industrialists in their research, while some countries – including ours – were still reluctant. Realizing the urgency, the member countries authorized the launch of firm pre-orders of vaccines to SIX laboratories, after only 5 days of reflection.
Of the SIX – including SANOFI – three – to date – have been able to deliver approved vaccines, including one American produced in Switzerland, one American a little German and one English.
It was a bet like at the races and it is not necessarily the favorite who won.
To do it faster, it would have been necessary to shake up – as the British did with AstraZeneca – the authorization process by pleading the urgency. What would our opinions so quick to claim the precautionary principle have thought? What would we have said in France or elsewhere in Europe if we had vaccinated with vaccines, like that of AstraZeneca, used without taking all the usual precautions in Great Britain, when we now know that it only really effective for people under 65? We can rightly be reassured by arguing that a race is won over distance.
A disorderly and sovereign approach by each Member State – or even each Region – to obtain supplies at the expense of others would have led to a war of deliveries with undue advantages to the most powerful at the expense of the smallest.
All the more so since no one can dispute that by grouping the orders the EU was able to weigh on its suppliers and obtain better prices.
The weak point of production and logistics
There is no denying that mass production and refrigeration of such quantities of vaccine was a challenge for which the EU was not prepared. States left to their own devices would they have done better with the same guarantees for the vaccinated as those offered by the European Medicines Agency? This is doubtful given the dilapidated state of drug production in some member countries.
Learning how to increase volumes and set up new supply chains, purchasing raw materials and managing subcontracting, while respecting quality controls, is always difficult.
On December 15, 2020 the EU very quickly ordered 100 million new doses from Pfizer and 80 million from Moderna. It did the same with AstraZeneca, which had already delivered all of its production to its financier at the height of the pandemic. New orders were placed in January with Pfizer and BioNTech for the delivery of 300 million additional doses, bringing its potential orders to 600 million. Ditto with Moderna whose Commission has reserved 160 million doses. With all of these orders, Europe has now secured the purchase of enough doses to vaccinate 380 million Europeans, or 80% of the population.
The EU has tried to block deliveries outside the EU and has drawn the wrath of the WHO, which would have done the same if states had thought to do so – without having invested first.
The boss of Valneva was right to say that the EU started its orders a bit late. But who was asking the EU at the time? Certainly not most of the French political parties which had not anticipated anything at all and were content to criticize. In any case, having not invested heavily, the EU would not have benefited from any delivery priority.
On the other hand, has everything been said to the EU? The Brussels competition gendarmes are not always the best friends of the big bosses in the industry.
Rather than these unjustified and sometimes cruel criticisms, let us remember that the technological backwardness of certain member countries – including France – in the development of all types of vaccines or the production of messenger RNA type vaccines, reagents and even vials (the list is long) is at the root of our ills. In this area the Commission has nothing to do with it!
The future will tell us whether excessive confidence – in France in particular – in SANOFI’s in-house vaccine and in the use of local orders are not the causes of the timidity of the first European orders from the EU.
Otherwise, we believe that Europe has rather, thanks to its reactivity, spared a berezina from the end of spring by taking initiatives, in particular to support states in the management of this crisis and in vaccination.
The lessons to be learned from this crisis.
They reside in particular in underinvestment in the pharmaceutical industry in certain European countries. We must help them and give them more funding. We must also create a real European pharmacy for essential products such as certain antibiotics or painkillers, as suggested by centrist member of the EPP Nathalie Colin and author of a report on drug shortages in 2020.
The creation under the aegis of the EU of a European Center for the Anticipation of Sanitary and Epidemic Risks, endowed with resources, should also be considered.
Finally, the lack of industrial and logistical skills of the “policies” of the Commission is obvious.. The “Purchasing” skill only deals with part of the problem. Afterwards, you have to produce and deliver “just in time”.