Covid-19: Europe is lashing out like a wounded animal but its injuries are self-inflicted

ANALYSIS: Fifty-five weeks have passed since coronavirus first swept across Europe but the past seven days will go down as some of the most damaging.
Under pressure over a shambolic vaccine rollout and a rapidly worsening third wave, the continents political machinery is lashing out like a wounded animal because it is. Unfortunately, the European Union lacks the self-awareness to realise many of the injuries are self-inflicted.

How else to explain the policy madness that has unfolded over the past week? Each decision on Covid-19 vaccines seemed more unsound and irresponsible than the last.

As if banning the shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia earlier this month didnt set a bad enough precedent, the EU went even further on Wednesday by threatening to take over AstraZenecas factories and strip the company of its intellectual property rights unless the pharmaceutical giant delivered more doses over the coming months.

* Covid-19: EU drug agency says AstraZeneca vaccine safe, will add clot warning
* We are in the crisis of the century: Europe threatens to seize AstraZeneca factories
* Covid-19: More European countries hit pause on AstraZeneca vaccine rollouts after reports of blood clotting, Medsafe still assessing for NZ
* Covid-19: 'Not clear' if Italy blocking AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia will affect NZ

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has grounds to be upset: while Pfizer and Moderna have delivered on their first quarter commitments and pledged to deliver a combined 235 million doses in the second, AstraZeneca is dragging the chain. The firm will give the bloc only 100 million doses over the first six months of 2021 when the EU was expecting 270 million.

AstraZeneca says it is facing shortfalls due to lower-than-expected output from the production process. The exact problems are still not clear.

John Thys
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen has flagged blocking vaccine exports to Britain because 10 million Pfizer doses manufactured in Europe have been exported across the Channel and none from AstraZenecas UK factories have come back the other way. Theres a big problem with this threat, though: Pfizer is the only vaccine being exported to the UK, and Pfizer is meeting its EU supply contracts. Its hard to see Brussels irritating a reliable commercial partner just to make a political point, although Europes infection curve is rising sharply and Von der Leyen may well consider it.

The EU might see short-term gain from a vaccine export war but pulling the trigger would make it a long-term loser. The bloc would earn pariah status among its international partners, which is why it has only dared block one shipment so far the 250,000 doses due for Australia.

Bob Edme/AP
Countries across Europe resumed vaccinations with the AstraZeneca shot on Friday as leaders sought to reassure their populations it is safe following brief suspensions.

AstraZeneca is not above criticism but its European factories face extraordinary demand from a vaccine-hungry world, from the nations of Africa awaiting emergency supply to Australia, which will inoculate the bulk of the population with the Oxford jab. The British-Swedish firm is also pumping out the doses on a not-for-profit basis under its agreement with the University of Oxford, so there is little financial incentive for it to divert vaccines to other countries at the expense of the EU.

AstraZeneca certainly bears no blame for the weeks other baffling decision by some EU members to suspend the jab over unfounded safety fears.

Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden stopped administering the vaccine after a handful of reports emerged that some recipients had later developed blood clots.

Thomas Coex/AP
France's Prime Minister Jean Castex, 55, was among the European leaders vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot on Friday to show we can have complete confidence.

The suspensions were announced in the absence of any evidence of a causal link and public faith in AstraZeneca has taken a hit from earlier false statements by some European leaders and newspapers.

They were also enforced even though most countries knew the EUs drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency, had directed its experts to investigate the issue and was due to report their findings on Friday. Why not wait?

The rush looks even worse now the EMA has handed down its verdict. The regulator on Thursday said it had reviewed 469 reports of thromboembolic events in people who had received the vaccine a figure lower than would normally be expected in the general population. So the 13 countries suspended a drug that may well lower the risk of blood clots than increase it, and they did it despite warnings not to from the EMA and World Health Organisation.

Gregorio Borgia/AP
People line up to get their AstraZeneca vaccine in Rome on Friday after the temporary ban was lifted.

The EMA does remain concerned about a potential link between the vaccine and 25 combined cases of two rare blood conditions but even if a link is established, the risk is so small that it would never outweigh the life-saving benefits of the vaccine.

But now the damage is done. This weeks unedifying clamour will needlessly erode trust in a vaccine which is safe and slashing infections, hospitalisations and deaths across the Channel in Britain. How many of the people who heard the vaccine was suspended over safety concerns will hear the news that the program has resumed because it was given the all-clear?

Asked what the countries could possibly have been thinking, EMA chief executive Emer Cooke on Thursday let the numbers do the talking: the 25 problem cases are a fraction of the 20 million people who have had the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe and the United Kingdom. Or 0.000125 per cent to be exact.

She was too diplomatic to note that the 13 countries had downed tools while simultaneously complaining that they werent being given enough doses.

Or that nearly 15,000 Europeans died in the past week while some of their leaders thrashed about looking for answers in the wrong places.

Sydney Morning Herald

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