The UK has been quicker than the European Union in approving COVID-19 vaccines but it also took greater risks with pharma firms by accepting all liability in case of complications, French MEP Pascal Canfin told EURACTIV.com in an interview.
“Sure, Britain started vaccinating earlier but it is also completely liable for complications that hopefully won’t happen but could,” said Canfin who is chairman of the European Parliament’s committee on the environment, public health and food safety.
“That was the main reason why the EU’s negotiations took longer,” he told EURACTIV as countries have begun mass immunisation campaigns with the vaccine developed by German start-up BioNTech and its American partner, Pfizer.
In the European Union, liability now lies primarily with the manufacturers, something that Pfizer in particular has long resisted, Canfin explained.
“The member countries demanded that the European Commission negotiate strong and trustful contracts to avoid risks for citizens,” said the French lawmaker from the centrist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.
Speaking to EURACTIV, Canfin defended the EU’s approach to negotiate collectively to get the best terms and conditions with regards to price and delays, in order to protect European citizens.
“It’s fake news to let people believe that each country in Europe would have found better solutions alone – remember the 2009 crisis with H1N1 and all its mismanagements,” he said.
Canfin insisted that the EU approved vaccines later but got better deals compared to the US and the UK in terms of both public health and prices.
“We have done things differently – and I think more responsibly – than some nations, for example Donald Trump in the US or Boris Johnson in the UK, who tried to accelerate the process without taking into account all the health precautions coming from public authorities or health companies.”
He said the EU has now secured around 2.3 billion doses of vaccine, far more than necessary and that if the 27 EU countries had tried to do it on their own, they would probably have been much less successful.
‘Irresponsible’ parallel negotiations will increase prices
Turning to national politics, Canfin lashed out against those around Europe who have urged their government to cut separate deals with the pharma industry, in addition to the agreements made at the EU level by the European Commission.
“When I hear some politicians from the SPD in Germany and from Les Républicains in France, asking for national orders, in breach of the European framework, I call this attitude irresponsible as it would mean higher prices, less solidarity, and will not bring any public health benefits,” he said.
He added that national separate orders would mean negotiating a new contract, and as a consequence, would provide the additional vaccines probably too late.
“The best way is to increase our joint procurement as the Commission did last Friday,” he said, referring to the EU order of another 300 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Last week, Germany said it had agreed with BioNTech in September to supply an additional 30 million doses on a bilateral basis. This was a memorandum of understanding, of which the EU was aware, the Health Ministry said.
But EU Commission chief Ursula Von der Leyen said on 8 January that the EU negotiations are the only “binding legal framework” for all member states.
The Portuguese health minister Marta Temido, who is now holding the EU’s rotating presidency, has confirmed that some countries have purchased vaccines on their own side.
“We also know that these purchases were made after the joint negotiations had taken place at EU level,” she added.
However, it remains unclear if the Commission will take action against Germany or other countries. At a press conference last Friday, von der Leyen refused to say whether Germany’s bilateral deal with Pfizer-BioNTech had broken the EU’s commitment to joint procurement of vaccines.
EU avoided a ‘chaos’
On that point, Canfin said the issue that has to be clarified is the delivery process.
“The EU has ordered the vaccines and it was done on time. The distribution is now completely in the hands of the member countries. And what do we see? – Chaos,” he said.
“Now imagine what would have happened if all 27 EU countries had negotiated individually with the vaccine manufacturers, signed different contracts and started vaccinating at different times. The chaos would be even greater. In an integrated space like the EU, cooperation makes us stronger,” Canfin concluded.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]