German politicians dubbed 'vaccine snails' amid slow EU roll-out

No wonder Germany leapt on fake news about Oxford jab: Merkel’s ‘vaccine snails’ face growing public anger over their inability to match Britain’s jab rates

  • Germany’s already-slow vaccine roll-out hit by supply issues after AstraZeneca said it was cutting deliveries
  • That prompted politicians to brief newspapers that the jab barely worked, before the claims were rubbished 
  • EU and UK are now in a jab tug-of-war, with Germany threatening to block exports so it can get a ‘fair share’
  • Meanwhile anger is growing across the continent with slow pace of rollout, even as lockdowns are tightened 

German politicians have been dubbed ‘vaccine snails’ today in the face of growing public anger over their ’embarrassingly slow’ Covid jabs roll-out which has fallen far behind the UK and US.

Ministers were told they ‘can and must do better’ in a scathing editorial in Bild newspaper, after apparently spending the night spreading rumours that Britain’s Oxford/AstraZeneca jab barely works in old people.

The story was published in two German newspapers before being quickly rubbished by the country’s own Health Ministry, but gives a glimpse into growing nervousness among politicians over their stalled jabs programme. 

Once praised for having one of the best Covid responses in the world, Germany is now plagued with stubbornly high case numbers, a high death rate, and a vaccine roll-out that has seen them jab just 2 in 100 people over the course of a month – a figure that Israel manages to achieve every single day.

In total, UK has vaccinated a total of 7million people while Germany has managed just 1.8million. 

Ministers once promised that their vaccine drive would rival the UK but that now appears almost impossible after Pfizer and AstraZeneca both announced they were cutting supplies to the EU, prompting Germany to demand controls that would allow them to halt exports of the jabs.

News that the roll-out will be delayed further could hardly come at a worse time as patience with lockdown measures wears thin, particularly in neighbouring Netherlands which has been hit by three nights of rioting over its new curfew measures.  

Europe’s vaccine roll-out was already among the slowest in the world, but has been hit by further problems as France’s Pasteur Institute mothballed its jab on Monday and AstraZeneca cut supplies to the bloc by 60 per cent due to ‘supply issues’

Virus cases in Europe have remained stubbornly high throughout winter despite tougher restrictions being introduced, with many countries now considering new national shutdowns – if they have not been imposed already

Deaths from the virus in Europe are now higher than any other continent with 660,000 recorded since the start of the pandemic, and with hospitals under strain following steep case rises

Europe’s vaccine roll-out got off to a bad start as its medical regulator was one of the slowest to approve the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for use – which was signed off in the UK on December 2, the US on December 11, but not given approval in the EU on December 21.

The EU has still not approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab for use despite the UK approving it on December 30, which has made a significant difference in early access to vaccines.

Britain has been able to rapidly increase its roll-out since the AstraZeneca was approved because the company has quickly scaled up production. The company is now on course to supply an average of 2million doses per day for the remainder of the year.  

Instead, the EU pressed ahead with approving Moderna’s vaccine which has taken much longer to enter mass production, and – similar to the Pfizer jab – must be stored in a freezer, making it more complicated to deliver and administer.

Oxford’s jab, meanwhile, can be stored in a fridge – meaning it is quicker to deliver and can be administered easier, with few worries about unused doses left in vials.

The EU’s programme has also been hit with supply shortfalls, with Pfizer being the first to warn that deliveries will be cut by 20 per cent in the near-term, which it promised will be made up for with more doses later on.  

Europe is currently devising a ‘transparency mechanism’ which would give it the means to block vaccine exports by denying manufacturers permits to ship the jabs abroad, teeing up a tug-of-war with the UK 

AstraZeneca then warned deliveries would also be cut due to problems within the ‘EU supply chain’ – thought to be caused by low production at a lab in Belgium.

While an exact figure has not been disclosed, it is thought the cut could total 60 per cent of deliveries that were bound for the EU.

The news prompted furious reaction from Europe, with Brussels demanding drug firms give them early warning when exporting Covid jabs outside the bloc, raising the prospect that they could be subject to export bans.

Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn was among those demanding restriction on jabs leaving the EU on Tuesday, suggesting that any shortfall in AstraZeneca supplies should affect the UK and Europe ‘equally’.

It is not clear exactly why the EU has been so badly affected with shortfalls, but data published by the Financial Times suggest the US and UK – whose supplies are flowing better – spent much more on their vaccine drives up front. 

The two have spent about seven times more upfront per-person on vaccines than the EU, data gathered by Airfinity showed.

Rasmus Bech Hansen, Airfinity’s chief executive, suggested that the EU should have been quicker to finance upgrades of factories and raw materials suppliers.

The EU was also slow to do deals with vaccine-makers, including Pfizer whose vaccine was the first to roll out.

The EU began pushing its ‘transparency mechanism’ after AstraZeneca, the company manufacturing the vaccine developed at Oxford, said it was cutting EU supplies by 60 per cent while leaving the UK unaffected

While the UK and US placed extra orders with the company back in June after promising early trials, the EU did not place its orders until November. 

Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University, added that companies expecting a shortfall in supply are likely to prioritise those countries with ‘the earliest and most-binding contracts’.

As news of the supply issues spread, EU president Ursula von der Leyen intervened – calling company chief Pascal Soriot on Monday to insist he ‘must deliver’

‘The EU helped with money to build research capacity and production facilities early on. Europe invested billions to help develop the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines,’ she said on Tuesday. 

‘Now the companies must deliver. They must honour their obligation. This is why we will set up a vaccine export transparency mechanism.’

The proposed mechanism would force manufacturers to report how many vaccines are produced in the EU and to obtain permits to ship those vaccines out.

That would theoretically allow European leaders to deny permits to vaccine shipments they would rather keep on their soil.

Speaking about the plans, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said: ‘It makes sense that we have an export restriction.

‘Vaccines that leave the European Union need a permit so that we can first of all know what is being manufactured in Europe, what is leaving Europe, where it is leaving Europe and whether it is then also a fair distribution.’

Meanwhile patience with lockdown measures appeared to be wearing thin after a third night of rioting in the Netherlands, making the need for injections all the more pressing

Amid the chaos newspapers began turning on ministers – with Bild publishing a report that branded politicians ‘vaccine snails’.

Europe’s roll-out was branded ’embarrassing’ by the paper which added that ‘everything can – and must – get better’.

Meanwhile Die Welt published a column that accused Mr Spahn of using ‘smoke and mirrors’ to distract from the country’s vaccine failures.

Hungary has even gone so far as to reach outside the bloc and secure 1million doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine – which is also being looked at by European regulators, who have yet to approve it.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has often been involved in spats with the EU, said: ‘Hungarians need the vaccine, not an explanation.

‘After the epidemic there will be time for member states to examine whether or not it was a good decision to entrust the procurement of the vaccine to Brussels.’

Europe continues to be the world’s worst-hit region with coronavirus, having suffered both more cases and more deaths than any other continent.

Since the start of the pandemic, some 29million cases of the virus have been logged in Europe compared to 28.6million in North America – the second-worst affected.

Meanwhile deaths in Europe are now at a combined total of 660,000 – well above second place North America with 600,000. 

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