Von der Leyen tells skittish Europeans: ‘I’d take AstraZeneca vaccine’

File photo. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a presser on the EU's vaccine strategy in Brussels, Belgium, 8 January 2021. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

The European Union’s most senior administrator said she would happily receive AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine as officials rushed to find ways of ensuring doses refused by skittish Germans did not go to waste.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen’s remarks came amid growing concerns that unfavourable comments by top European officials including French President Emmanuel Macron had slowed take-up of one of only three vaccines currently approved EU-wide.

Earlier this month, Macron said Britain had taken a risk in authorising AstraZeneca so rapidly. A German official study also found evidence that, though effective, the vaccine has more severe side effects than its two main rivals.

“I would take the AstraZeneca vaccine without a second thought, just like Moderna’s and BioNTech/Pfizer’s products,” von der Leyen told the Augsburger Allgemeine.

The endorsement is all the more striking for coming a month after the European Commission that she heads entered into sharp correspondence with AstraZeneca over suggestions, denied by the company, that the British-Swedish company had prioritised Britain over the EU in delivering the vaccine.

The Commission has been criticised over the slow pace of vaccination across the 27-member-bloc, with critics saying it failed to secure sufficient early supply of the vaccines that leaders are banking on to bring an end to the pandemic that has devastated the continent’s economy.

In Germany, where a widespread preference for the German-designed BioNTech vaccine has led to a growing number of unused AstraZeneca doses, officials and politicians competed to suggest ways of making sure they did not go to waste.

Berlin’s Social Affairs Senator Elke Breitenbach said unused doses should be given to the 3,000 homeless living in the city’s emergency accommodation. “We shouldn’t forget those who don’t have a loud lobby behind them,” she told Funke Media Group.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had earlier said unused vaccines should go to the police.

Setback

In the meantime, AstraZeneca Plc has told the EU it expects to deliver less than half the COVID-19 vaccines it was contracted to supply in the second quarter, an EU official told Reuters on Tuesday (23 February).

Contacted by Reuters, AstraZeneca did not deny what the official said, but a statement late in the day said the company was striving to increase productivity to deliver the promised 180 million doses.

The expected shortfall, which has not previously been reported, follows a big reduction in supplies in the first quarter and could hit the EU’s ability to meet its target of vaccinating 70% of adults by summer.

The EU official, who is directly involved in talks with the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker, said the company had told the bloc during internal meetings that it “would deliver less than 90 million doses in the second quarter.”

AstraZeneca’s contract with the EU, which was leaked last week, showed the company had committed to delivering 180 million doses to the 27-nation bloc in the second quarter.

Asked about the EU official’s comment, a spokesman for AstraZeneca initially said: “We are hopeful that we will be able to bring our deliveries closer in line with the advance purchase agreement.”

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