Suspicions of Mixed Motives Mar EU's Rock-Star Status in Search for COVID-19 Vaccines

June 29, 2020
Peter O'Donnell
Peter O'Donnell

Peter O'Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium.

While the European Union has had a crucial role in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, critics are suggesting the largest beneficiaries will be drug firms, leaving people in poorer countries out of the loop,

The European Union's prominent role in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine has not won universal praise, with some critics suggesting that drug firms will be the big beneficiaries, and people in poorer countries will be left in the lurch.

For weeks now, the EU has been at the center of efforts both to fund vaccine research, and to guarantee access for its citizens to vaccines that emerge. Following its proposal for a coordinated global response to the pandemic at the meeting of G20 leaders in late March, it conducted talks with organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO), Gavi, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust. Then it hosted the pledging meeting of the Coronavirus Global Response in early May, when international donors raised $8 billion in initial funding. And at the end of May it hosted the pledging summit and its rock-star concert that raised a further $7 billion.

Meanwhile, the EU produced a strategy focused on reaching advanced purchase agreements with drug firms to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines. This has a budget of $3 billion and aims at securing the production of vaccines in the EU and ensuring sufficient supplies for its member states. In return for the right to buy a specified number of vaccine doses in a given timeframe, the Commission will finance part of the upfront costs faced by vaccines producers. Funding provided will be considered as a down-payment on the vaccines that will actually be purchased by member states. Talks are already getting underway with companies that could be potential beneficiaries of the scheme.

Throughout, the message from the EU has underlined its commitment to solidarity, to "universal, equitable and affordable access to vaccines, especially for the most vulnerable countries." The aim of its international efforts, it said on June 29 is "to develop coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments, and make them accessible and affordable everywhere in the world, for everyone who needs them."  And announcing the EU vaccine strategy just days before, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the development of a successful vaccine “will be a breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus, and a testament to what partners can achieve when we put our minds, research and resources together." She added: "The European Union will do all in its power to ensure that all peoples of this world have access to a vaccine, irrespective of where they live.” The EU commissioner for health, Stella Kyriakides, said: "No one is safe until everyone is safe and we will leave no stones unturned in our efforts to protect EU and global citizens.”

But critics have been quick to warn that the arrangements with drug firms could amount to blank checks payable regardless of results, and that the declarations of concern for people in poorer countries are an imperfect fit with the EU's focus on supplying its own citizens.

Third World Network, an influential non-governmental organization, has accused the EU of prioritizing preferential access and merely paying lip-service to global solidarity.

It says the EU vaccine strategy "marks a major shift from earlier calls for global collaboration and solidarity in ensuring affordable equitable access to vaccines globally." It is skeptical of the EU's claim that the advance purchase agreements are “an insurance policy which transfers some of the risk from industry to the public authorities in return for assuring Member States equitable and affordable access to a vaccine, should one become available." It points out that the EU, by its own admission, has already provided “significant levels of EU support" to vaccine producers.

Dozens of signatories from among civil society organizations, public health experts and academics recently expressed alarm that the EU was opting for preferential access agreements for its citizens over global collaboration and solidarity for equitable allocation. They say that purchasing of potential vaccines that would cater to EU member states’ needs first would sharply contrast with the European Commission’s "highly visible leadership in a global response". In their view, “supply should not be preferentially allocated to Europe only or Europe first in derogation of its global solidarity commitment to equitable global access.”

It is hardly necessary to point out that so far, no vaccine is imminent – and as the EU itself has admitted, its strategy carries no guarantee of success: no vaccine at all may prove successful, despite advance purchase commitments. But it is undeniable that the questioning of EU motives and procedures has tainted the atmosphere – and will only become more intense as the issues of pricing and intellectual property come into prospect.