Von der Leyen sings the ‘mea culpa’: “We underestimate the difficulties of vaccine production”

The president announces a change in legislation for the EMA to examine drugs against Covid more quickly.

President Ursula von der Leyen, during her appearance in the European Parliament this Wednesday

After several weeks of intense political storm, the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has finally appeared this Wednesday before the plenary session of the European Parliament to give explanations for the stumbling blocks in the European vaccination strategy against Covid-19. While the EU has barely immunized 3.9% of the population, the United States is already at 12.8%, the United Kingdom reaches 18.9% and Israel has reached 65.8%, according to data collected by OurWorldinData.

Von der Leyen is in the eye of the hurricane due to his management and the general shortage of vaccines, since the Twenty-seven entrusted him with the centralized antigen purchasing. He is blamed in particular for AstraZeneca contract fiasco and the controversial launch of the mechanism to limit antidote exports and their impact in Northern Ireland. The president is also criticized for the slowness in negotiating with the pharmaceutical companies and the delay of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in the authorization of the vaccines.

Vaccination has not progressed as fast as we would have liked“, Has admitted the Secretary of State for the EU of Portugal, Ana Paula Zacarias, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Union. “We knew that in the early stages the availability of vaccines would be limited. That is why we prioritize the elderly and health workers. But recent news from delays in deliveries by some producers they are a source of concern ”, said Zacarias, who has preceded Von der Leyen in the use of the word.

“It is a fact that we are not where we would like to be today in the fight against the virus. We took time to approve. We were too optimistic about mass production. And perhaps we were too sure that what we ordered would be delivered to us on time ”, acknowledged the president.

Nonetheless, Von der Leyen has defended the key decisions made by his team. First of all, it considers it a wise choice to have opted for centralized purchasing at EU level. “I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if only a few large countries had accessed vaccines and the rest had been left with neighboring hands,” says the president. “In economic terms it would not have made any sense and it would have been the end of our community“, He insisted.

No shortcuts

Von der Leyen has also vindicated the action of the EMA, which has taken longer than the United Kingdom or the United States to authorize vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Modern The AstraZeneca. “We choose not to take shortcuts in terms of safety or efficacy and we fully embrace it. There can be no compromises when it comes to injecting a biologically active substance into a healthy person (…) Yes, that means that approval takes an extra three or four weeks. But it is an essential investment in trust and security ”, he argued.

Ursula von der Leyen has defended her vaccine strategy in the European Parliament

Ursula von der Leyen has defended her vaccine strategy in the European Parliament

However, the President has announced the launch of a new European Public Testing Network to improve data exchange between Member States and the EMA. In addition, the Commission will propose a legislative reform to “enable the EMA to examine vaccines as quickly as possible“.

The biggest mistake Von der Leyen has recognized is that he underestimated the problems of mass production of vaccines. Mind you, this time he hasn’t even named AstraZeneca’s supply cut. “We were very focused on developing the vaccine, but globally we have underestimated the difficulty associated with mass production. Typically, it takes 5-10 years to come up with a new vaccine, and we’ve done it in 10 months. It is a great scientific success, and we should be proud. But in a way science has overtaken industry“, He points out.

“The production of new vaccines is a very complex process, you cannot start a production plant overnight. Vaccines have up to 400 components and production involves 100 companies ”. For all these reasons, the president has set up a working group within the Commission, led by the Commissioner for Industry, Thierry breton, which aims to “detect problems and help solve them” in order to increase production capacity in Europe.

Industry must adapt to the rhythm of science“, Claims the president. “One of the current bottlenecks, for example, is linked to only two synthetic molecules. If we had only 250 grams more of these molecules, the companies say they could produce a million more doses of vaccine. That is why we need more coordination in the supply of key ingredients ”, he said.

Export control

The second mistake Von der Leyen admits is that he considered for a moment introducing border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of the vaccine export authorization mechanism, which in practice meant violating the EU promise that there will never be a physical border on the island. “Mistakes were made in the decision-making process and I am deeply sorry, but in the end we got it right. My Commission will do everything possible to protect the peace in Northern Ireland ”, he assured.

Vaccination in Andalusia

Vaccination in Andalusia

The president justifies the control of vaccine exports – criticized by the WHO, the OECD and partners such as Canada or Japan – because of the large amount of money that the EU has invested in European manufacturing plants and the need to guarantee predictability in the deliveries. But he has ensured that there will be no problems for pharmaceutical companies that fulfill their contract with Europe and it has asserted that exemptions are foreseen for neighboring countries and also for humanitarian reasons.

The battle against the virus is a marathon and not a sprint“, Asegura Von der Leyen. Come on main political groups of the European Parliament -popular, socialists, liberals and part of the greens- have closed ranks around the president of the Commission, although they have demanded more transparency in the contracts of the laboratories. The president made sure to defuse the harshest criticism against her in a series of closed-door appearances organized last week. Of course, he has avoided giving new figures on the deliveries of vaccines planned for the next few weeks.