The EU Commission is accused of ordering the vaccine from the Mainz company Biontech to have acted too hesitantly. In an interview, Christian Ehler (CDU) recalls that the Brussels negotiations with Biontech and the US partner Pfizer recently turned out to be difficult because of liability issues. In conversation with the coordinator in the Research and Industry Committee of the European Parliament, the role of the French company Sanofi in the conclusion of the contracts with the vaccine manufacturers, concerns of the southern and eastern European member states and lengthy decision-making processes at EU level are also discussed.
Mr. Ehler, was the EU Commission too hesitant to procure vaccines?
No. It was right that the Commission adopted a kind of portfolio strategy that involved negotiations with several providers. Anything else would have been a game of roulette. As recently as August, it looked like the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca would be the fastest in developing the vaccine – and not the Mainz-based company Biontech with its US partner Pfizer, which were in the lead in the end. With Biontech and Pfizer it came to an end in November. One must not forget that the negotiations with Pfizer were really tough in the end, because the American shareholder practically demanded a disclaimer. If the EU had accepted it, the vaccine would probably not have been accepted by large parts of the population.
How do you appreciate them Does France play a role in the negotiations with the six companies with which contracts were signed? Paris has apparently pushed for the French manufacturer Sanofi not to miss out either.
First of all, the doses were distributed relatively evenly among the six companies with which the EU dealt. This also includes Sanofi. The French have indeed been very robust to ensure that a French manufacturer can come into play. But apart from France, the other Member States also had very different interests, which did not make decisions easier. Especially the southern and eastern Europeans looked more than others at the price of the vaccine and the logistics that must be kept for the respective vaccines. During the negotiations, this spoke in favor of the AstraZeneca vector vaccine, which is significantly cheaper than the mRNA vaccines that have now been approved as the first.
Despite the market power of the EU, Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn had to intervene at the end of last year to lower the price of the vaccine from Pfizer / Biontech. What does that mean for the efficiency of the EU Commission?
To be precise, it was the German EU Council Presidency that negotiated. One has to say soberly: Germany, as the largest member state in the EU, has a negotiating power that has led to significantly more favorable terms than the EU Commission.
On the other hand, is the process of appointment at EU level too cumbersome because not only the Commission is involved, but also a steering group made up of representatives from all EU member states?
Many processes at EU level should actually run faster. But it should not be forgotten that without the involvement of all Member States, the vaccination campaign would hardly be accepted by the population across the Community. Last spring in Italy there was great anger against financially better off member states, especially Germany. Before the vaccination campaign, it was therefore clear that the EU would not be able to go it alone nationally, as it did with the supply of respiratory masks. In Italy there were over 1000 deaths among doctors and nurses because no protective equipment was available and because a dispute over the material had broken out in Europe.
Should the EU Commission apply more transparency and make the contracts with the vaccine manufacturers at least accessible to the European Parliament?
I remember that in the European Parliament, it was above all the socialists and the Greens who raised the question of whether the EU should really spend such amounts of money on vaccine procurement. Suddenly there is no longer any question of that. On the question of transparency, I have to say that, as coordinator in the Research and Industry Committee, I have always been well informed by the Commission when asked. Anyone who wanted more information about the negotiations could get it.
The FDP in the European Parliament is already calling for a committee of inquiry to be set up if the Commission does not allow sufficient transparency in the negotiations with the manufacturers.
This is the height of hypocrisy. Fighting the pandemic is not about party politics, but about an epochal challenge. Any reasonable person knew that ordering the vaccine would not be possible without a portfolio strategy. You had to be prepared that not all vaccine candidates would do the same in the third phase of clinical trials.
What role can the EU play in containing the pandemic and vaccinations in its neighborhood – for example in the countries of the Western Balkans and states like Ukraine?
The EU made it clear from the start that a solution had to be found in Africa or in the countries east of the Community. No one has heard anything like it in the United States or China. The programs to bring other countries closer to the EU already give us the option of providing medical and logistical support. If there is a vector vaccine that is easier to use, then Europeans have to live up to their responsibilities in their geographical area. Ultimately, we also have to consider whether we should also provide financial aid. But the decision has not yet been made.