On the day Britain’s vaccine tsar announced the deal securing 40 million doses of the Pfizer jab, her Brussels opposite number was literally talking about the price of fish.
It was July 20, and while Kate Bingham was giving the UK a stunning head-start, Stella Kyriakides, the European commissioner in charge of the bloc’s inoculation plan, was embroiled in an intractable meeting of the EU’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council.
A further four months would elapse before the EU managed to place its own order with Pfizer.
Success has many fathers, and Ministers and scientists are jostling to receive the plaudits for the UK’s nimble, world-beating strategy.
Determined to be near the front of the queue is Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who posed the question to a vaccines planning meeting in Whitehall last April: ‘In a year’s time, what decisions will we wish we had taken now?’
While most of his colleagues were preoccupied by intensive care unit capacity in hospitals, protective equipment and the R rate, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam (pictured) would keep repeating in meetings: ‘We need to buy freezers and vials. The vaccine is the key’
His conclusion was that while the UK’s vaccine expertise was among the best – if not the best – in the world, we did not have the manufacturing scale needed to capitalise on it.
Presciently, Mr Hancock warned that Britain risked having to rely on foreign companies to manufacture the vaccines which we developed: as a result, the critical order was given to dramatically increase our domestic production capacity.
Equally important was the Government’s decision to ignore Labour’s demands for the UK to join the EU’s vaccine scheme, which has struggled to manage the competing demands of member states and has been conspicuously slow to grant regulatory approval.
The contrast was described by one German newspaper last week as ‘the best advert for Brexit’ – symbolism which has delighted Boris Johnson.
Before Brexit, the UK provided a considerable proportion of the EU’s vaccine expertise: our departure from the bloc removed at a stroke 30 per cent of the ‘regulatory compliance’ officials used by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Pictured: Specialist Covid-19 vaccine freezers in a secure location, awaiting distribution of the vaccines to the NHS
By December, when the vaccines were ready to be deployed for the first time, Mr Hancock had introduced legal changes to ensure that Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had full sovereignty over the approval decisions, not the European body.
He also vetoed a deal between Oxford University and the US drugs giant Merck when it failed to give binding guarantees over supplies for the UK.
While much of the political credit will go to Mr Hancock, former Business Secretary Alok Sharma, who oversaw the Government’s Vaccine Taskforce, and Ms Bingham – instructed by Mr Johnson to ‘stop people from dying’, and described by friends as ‘brilliantly bonkers’ – also deserve star billing.
As does Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who impressed Downing Street with his calm horizon-scanning during the darkest days of the first lockdown last spring.
European newspapers maul EU chiefs over rollout fiasco
By JONATHAN BUCKS FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
European newspapers have condemned EU leaders over the bloc’s calamitous handling the vaccine rollout.
In a front page editorial, Die Zeit, one of Germany’s most respected broadsheets, described the debacle as ‘the best advertisement for Brexit’, with its London correspondent accusing Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of scoring ‘an unforgettable Brexit own goal’.
An editorial in the Left-wing Spanish newspaper El Pais said: ‘Compared with the action of other executives, the EU has been slow to act and signed contracts with suppliers later, which is now proving to be a problem.’
France’s Le Monde raged in an editorial that the EU’s bid to block exports entering Northern Ireland was ‘deplorable’, and claimed EU leaders were now engulfed with ‘panic’ over how to secure supplies of vaccines.
‘It is deplorable that political interests and geopolitical rivalries take precedence over the issue that no one should lose sight of: vaccinating as many people as possible, in Europe and in the rest of the world,’ it said.
Meanwhile, newspapers in Ireland met the EU’s action with fury.
The Irish Times said there had been ‘political uproar’ over Brussels’s conduct, while The Journal said it had caused ‘alarm across the political spectrum’.
While most of his colleagues were preoccupied by intensive care unit capacity in hospitals, protective equipment and the R rate, Prof Van-Tam would keep repeating in meetings: ‘We need to buy freezers and vials. The vaccine is the key.’
Away from Westminster, quiet heroics were being performed by Oxford scientists, who have played a role in the crisis akin to that performed by British codebreakers in Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
On January 30 last year, before the full scale of the crisis had become apparent, researcher Sarah Gilbert told colleagues she had been able to repurpose vaccines developed against the ebola virus so they might be effective against Covid-19. Professor Richard Cornall, her department’s head, says: ‘We just told her to go for it and spend what she needed.’
The work ultimately led to Oxford’s alliance with AstraZeneca, which now accounts for the lion’s share of our vaccine rollout.
Trumpeted at the outset as a forceful show of EU solidarity, the European Commission’s strategy of procuring vaccines for its 446 million citizens has curdled into rancour, with the bloc accused of being too slow, too bureaucratic and in thrall to European solidarity.
The missteps led to the bitter row between the bloc and AstraZeneca over the fine print of its contract, and has seen the EU attempt to block exports of the Pfizer jab to Britain. It has also led to embarrassment for pro-EU bulwarks such as French President Emmanuel Macron, whose foot-dragging has been blamed on his hopes that a jab produced by Paris-based pharmaceutical company Sanofi would dominate the global market.
Sanofi has said its product will not be ready before the end of this year at the earliest.
The fallout has been acrimonious. Smaller nations have accused larger ones of striking out on their own and hoarding jabs, while EU countries such as Hungary have lost patience with Brussels and bought millions of doses of Russia and China’s unregulated jabs.
Even now, more than a month after its programme launched, the EU has vaccinated barely 2.5 per cent of its population, compared with more than 12 per cent in the UK. And the EU’s vaccine budget of €2.7 billion (£2.4 billion) is a mere fraction of the £12 billion spent by the UK Government.
Last week’s announcements about the total of 90 million doses ordered from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson should allow the UK to stretch its lead even further.
The EU’s sluggishness in July was not its first error of judgment. On March 16, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ambroise Fayolle, of the European Investment Bank, committed €80 million (£71 million) in loans to German pharmaceutical company CureVac to develop a vaccine.
Fearful that she would be out-muscled by former US President Donald Trump, Ms von der Leyen made the commitment before even assessing the business case.
lOn March 16, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) and Ambroise Fayolle, of the European Investment Bank, committed €80 million (£71 million) in loans to German pharmaceutical company CureVac to develop a vaccine
She backed the wrong horse: even now, with millions of doses of Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs administered, CureVac’s jab is still only in trials.
On June 13, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands – who had formed the Inclusive Vaccines Alliance – announced a deal for between 300 million and 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, a move which appeared to show that Europe’s powerhouses were not afraid to flex their muscles in defiance of EU bureaucrats.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, conscious that such a move could undermine the European project, ordered her health minister, along with those of the other nations in the alliance, to write an extraordinary letter to Ms von der Leyen apologising for going it alone. ‘We believe that it is of the utmost importance to have a common, single and joint approach,’ the ministers wrote.
Merkel had instructed her health minister to ‘sound as humble as possible’. The alliance stopped operating, and allowed the EC to lead the talks.
Heath Secretary Matt Hancock gives a thumbs up as he leaves Millbank in Westminster, central London, after the news that a Covid-19 vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca has been approved for use in the UK
On July 10, the EU invited Britain to join its vaccine procurement scheme. When No 10 declined, Labour’s Europe spokeswoman Catherine West said the decision was ‘dumber and dumber’.
But as Ms Bingham explained last month: ‘We felt the conditions were too tight, and that we would be able to act more quickly if we did it independently.’
She was right: the EU’s snail-pace strategy has been slowed even further by protracted talks with pharma giants over whether they or the EU would bear legal responsibility for the vaccine.
By mid-August, the UK had signed in-principle agreements securing coronavirus vaccines with AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNtech, Valneva, GlaxoSmithKline/Sanofi, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson-owned Janssen. The EU waited until August 27 to seal its first – and now hotly disputed – vaccine deal with AstraZeneca. The EU finally signed a deal with Pfizer on November 11.
Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel complained in an interview that month that dealing with 27 EU nations was taking too long. By contrast, the US firm had secured a deal with Canada within two weeks of beginning talks.
When the MHRA approved the Pfizer jab on December 2 – the first regulator to do so in the world – its European counterpart reacted with fury, suggesting that UK had prioritised speed over safety. By the second week of December, more than a million doses of the jab, manufactured in Belgium, had been delivered to the UK.
In December, German economist Professor Paul Welfens, of Wuppertal University, estimated that the ‘nonsense’ preventing the rollout of the vaccine ‘will cost around 15,000 lives’ in his country.
A damning editorial in Der Bild newspaper screeched: ‘It’s just beyond belief. The world is celebrating the BioNTech vaccine developed in Germany. Yet Britain, the US and Canada have started vaccinating while we are standing and gawping.’
At the same time, the continent became gripped by anti-vaccination sentiment. A poll revealed that just 40 per cent of people in France would accept a jab.
In an extraordinary intervention at the start of January, Ugur Sahin, the billionaire scientist and chief executive of BioNTech, criticised the EU, saying. ‘The process was not as quick and straightforward as it was in other countries.’
Panicked, EU officials entered discussions with Pfizer about ordering more jabs after it became evident they had not bought enough.
Ministers of six EU states – Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – wrote to the Commission warning that the delays threaten ‘the credibility of the vaccination process’.
The EU’s woes mounted on January 23 when AstraZeneca warned of production delays, even before the EMA had approved the vaccine. European Council president Charles Michel began issuing thinly veiled legal threats. ‘We plan to make the pharmaceutical companies respect the contracts they have signed,’ he said.
A vaccine programme which was meant to be a badge of collective European might had descended into recrimination and even rioting, and left millions of Europeans unnecessarily exposed to the threat of the virus.