BRUSSELS – European Union leaders vowed Thursday to accelerate the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and pressed pharmaceutical companies to respect their delivery commitments, as concern mounts about the spread of new variants of the virus.
However, the leaders could offer no prospect of short-term respite for curfew-weary, mask-wearing citizens, many of whom have often worked from home over the last year — if they have not lost their jobs. The leaders also said that restrictions, including on travel, should remain in place in many parts of the 27-nation bloc.
COVID-19 has killed more than 531,000 people across the EU.
“Our top priority now is speeding up the production and delivery of vaccines and vaccinations,” EU Council President Charles Michel said, adding a warning for vaccine makers: “We want more predictability and transparency to ensure that pharmaceutical companies comply with their commitments.”
The European Commission has sealed deals with several companies for well over 2 billion vaccine shots — far more than the EU population of around 450 million — but only three have been authorized: jabs from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca. Officials say the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could be approved next month.
But some seniors officials at the big pharmaceutical companies, a few of whom were grilled by EU lawmakers not far from where Michel was chairing the videoconference summit in Brussels, said it's no simple matter to build new vaccine production sites.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said production problems are inevitable as companies work around the clock to do in one year what normally takes 3-4 years. Most of the company chiefs said they expect an improvement in the second quarter.
“Every time there is a human error, equipment breaking down... or raw material from one of our suppliers late by a day, you cannot start making the product because it will not be safe, you will not have the right quality,” Bancel said, explaining the technological issues facing producers.
AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said a big challenge is to improve yield — the number of doses that can be extracted from a liter of vaccine. He also rejected the idea that companies can simply open new production sites to solve the problem, saying that engineers must spend a lot of time training staff.
“Our teams are absolutely stretched to the maximum. There’s no way they could train any more people,” he said. Soriot insisted that most companies developing vaccines probably face the same constraint.
Soriot came under fire after he confirmed that the company would deliver less than half the vaccines it had committed to in the first quarter. The EU has partly blamed supply delays for lagging far behind nations like Israel, the United States and Britain when it comes to vaccinations. By early this week, 6.5% of the adults living in the EU had been vaccinated, compared to more than 27% in the U.K.
Soriot said AstraZeneca would deliver 40 million doses to the EU in the first quarter, attributing the delay to complicated production issues, including “lower than expected output in our dedicated European supply chain.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted pointedly that in terms of companies honoring the delivery commitments in their contracts with Europe, “there is room for improvement” at AstraZeneca.
Still, despite the slow vaccine rollout in Europe, delayed by almost a month compared to former member the U.K., von der Leyen said the bloc still aims to inoculate 70% of all adults — around 255 million people — by September.
“This is a goal that we are confident we will reach,” she said.
Border checks remain a sore point. Divisions among EU member countries, including Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic, on restrictions to stave off transmission has again raised the specter of travel delays and long traffic backups in a bloc that prides itself on being a seamless market.
Michel told reporters that “non-essential travel may still need to be restricted, but measures should be proportionate.”
The leaders were also updated on the movement of fast-spreading new variants of the virus within Europe, with the so-called U.K variant now present in 26 member countries. The variant first detected in South Africa has been identified in 14, while the Brazilian type is known to be in 7. This means that restrictions could well continue through coming months.
“There is a growing COVID fatigue among our citizens. It has been a very trying year, but we should not let up now,” said von der Leyen.
Also debated was the issue of "vaccine certificates," which could help smooth a return to air travel and possibly avoid another disastrous summer holiday season, as the tourism industry and broader economies suffer from restrictions.
Southern European countries dependent on tourism, like Greece and Spain, support such a system, but their northern EU partners, like Germany, doubt whether the certificates would work.
Von der Leyen said it would be technically possible to develop a “green pass” using a minimum of data indicating whether a person has been vaccinated, tested negative, or is immune after contracting the disease, within about three months, but that many political issues must first be resolved.
French President Emmanuel Macron insisted the EU nations should move in lockstep.
“None of us will accept that to attract tourists, one country would have looser rules than another and would be taking risks by making people come from the other side of the world to fill up its hotels,” he said.
“The most important question remains whether you can still transmit the disease. It is a crucial question,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters. He also raised concern about other issues, like the exclusion of those who have not been vaccinated, or cannot be.
Rutte also said Europeans should consider whether the discussion on vaccination certificates should involve other international institutions such as the World Health Organization, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Air Transport Association.
“You have to be careful that by adding more weight to it, the whole thing does not collapse onto itself,” he warned.
Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris, Frank Jordans from Berlin