Commission to EU countries: Get with the vaccine program
The Commission proposed strictly medical vaccination certificates, but could 'open the door' to other uses.
Brussels wants EU countries to cut the finger-pointing and get vaccinating.
After spending most of January defending its vaccine deals and the slow roll-out of jabs, the Commission upped the ante Tuesday and announced a push to restore “unity” to the EU’s vaccination campaigns.
“We are racing against time, not against each other,” said Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides. “On the contrary, it is a race that we in the EU are running together, as a team and in unity. As a team, it is important to set clear and ambitious targets.”
By March, the Commission announced, it wants EU countries to have vaccinated 80 percent of their health workers and those over the age of 80. By the summer, 70 percent of all adults in the EU should be vaccinated, it said, without offering a specific date.
The Commission also wants to increase rapid tests, ramp up genomic sequencing to identify new virus strains and replace blanket travel bans with more targeted guidance.
But like most things in health policy, Brussels doesn’t have the authority to tell countries what to do — hence, the Commission’s new document is a list of non-binding recommendations.
The vaccination strategy, which allowed the Commission to secure vaccines on EU countries’ behalf starting last June, was an unprecedented test of what the EU can do if allowed to take charge. The Commission has since held up the vaccine strategy as a poster child of EU solidarity, pointing to how the bloc amassed one of the largest vaccine portfolios in the world.
But rising criticism of the deals and increasing reports of countries making their own threatens to undermine it.
With sluggish vaccination campaigns and a looming battle on vaccination certificates, the Commission has taken the back seat once again, urging EU countries to come together and harmonize their strategies.
“Through unity, coordination and solidarity, we can beat this pandemic,” Kyriakides said. “The success that is our vaccine strategy is the strongest testament to this.”
Meanwhile, Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas insisted the Commission will do its part.
“We need to speed up vaccinations and vaccine supplies,” he said. “To support this, the Commission will work with companies to develop a transparent and clear delivery schedule of the different vaccines.”
Schinas refused to acknowledge that many countries botched the roll-out after the Commission secured the vaccines and put them in their hands.
“We are not … judges to pontificate on the very complex … national vaccination process plans,” Schinas said. He added that the situation is not the same across EU member states, with their great differences in health systems and geography.
But Schinas did push back on reports that some countries are eyeing other options outside the EU’s strategy. Cyprus apparently has asked Israel for jabs, while Hungary is closing in a deal to purchase Chinese vaccines. There are also Germany’s much-discussed side deals with BioNTech and CureVac.
“It would have betrayed the spirit of the Union if we agreed on a common EU approach and then allowed bilateral tactics and agreements to undo what we have agreed collectively to achieve,” he said.
Countries are allowed to opt out of contracts or order less than they are entitled to based on their population size, he noted. While such decisions have left some EU countries with fewer mRNA vaccines than their neighbors, the Commission has since secured extra BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines, and two EU diplomats confirmed the Commission is negotiating for more Moderna jabs to remedy the situation.
Kyriakides, meanwhile, expressed hope that more vaccines will come. The European Medicines Agency could make a recommendation at the end of the month on a third vaccine from Oxford/AstraZeneca, which will be cheaper and easier to deploy than BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna’s.
But countries are racing against time. Even as the number of vaccines increase, so too are reports of new, more transmissible variants.
The next big moment in the EU’s battle over health coordination is Thursday, when EU leaders are scheduled to debate whether to implement EU-wide vaccination certificates to allow citizens to travel again. The idea was proposed and backed by tourism-dependent countries like Greece and Portugal, but staunchly opposed by France.
In its proposal, the Commission recommends creating an EU-wide certificate rather than a “vaccination passport.” The document would merely provide medical information about when a person was vaccinated and with which vaccine.
Kyriakides said it’s “a little premature to go beyond health protection” in talks at this stage. Schinas, however, took a stronger line, saying it’s safe to assume that the certificate would “open the door to other uses to help lift restrictions” as well as “facilitating travel.”
“This would presuppose that, first, a sufficient number of Europeans go through vaccination, and then a political framing … of the conditions,” he added.
Hanne Cokelaere and David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.