Brussels is to probe EU governments’ compliance with its centralised buying of coronavirus vaccines, as concerns grow that member states will seek to make their own deals to avoid possible supply shortages.
The European Commission is to write to the bloc’s 27 countries to ask them to provide “all the necessary transparency” over any dealings with drug companies with which it has done deals or held talks.
Tensions have grown over whether the commission has secured sufficient quantities of the vaccines made by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, the only two so far to have won approval from the EU medical regulator.
Germany has already reportedly placed several bilateral orders, including 30m doses with BioNTech/Pfizer and 20m doses with CureVac, which — like BioNTech — is a German company. Cyprus has asked for extra jab supplies from its Mediterranean neighbour Israel, which has the highest vaccination rate in the world.
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, had asked Stella Kyriakides, EU health commissioner, to write to member state health ministers to check that they were “complying with the provisions of our vaccines strategy”, the EU executive said on Monday. The countries would be asked for details of “contacts — or lack of contacts, rather — with those pharmaceutical companies that we have been, or are, negotiating with”, the commission added.
Brussels has assembled a portfolio of more than 2bn doses of seven different vaccines under a vaccine strategy designed to cover the EU’s 446m population. But the scheme has drawn criticism from some politicians, notably Markus Söder, premier of the German state of Bavaria, who said “too few of the right vaccines were ordered and price debates went on for too long”.
Other politicians in Germany have questioned whether the country should have been part of the bloc-wide procurement at all. Leaders from political parties, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), have criticised the government for delegating vaccine purchases to Brussels. Finance minister Olaf Scholz, from the SPD, has demanded more transparency and presented the health minister with a four-page questionnaire on Berlin and the EU’s vaccine strategy.
By contrast, some other member state diplomats have privately questioned whether the bilateral German jab purchases conform with the letter and spirit of the EU vaccine strategy.
The commission has said member states are free to buy extra vaccines, but only if they do not affect delivery of doses agreed under EU deals or involve “parallel negotiations” that might undermine the bloc’s strategy. Brussels on Friday moved to shore up confidence in the EU vaccine procurement programme by announcing a provisional deal to double the bloc’s access to the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to 600m doses.
Other EU member states are also exploring how to speed up their vaccine rollout. President Nicos Anastasiades has asked Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s premier, whether Israel can spare some vaccine, the Cyprus government said. Mr Netanyahu said he would check and respond, Cyprus added.
Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv