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Politics

Ursula Von Der Leyen, Margaritis Schinas: Europe United Against the Coronavirus

February 5, 2021

BRUSSELS — The progress in vaccination, which started in the EU at the end of December, was presented in an article by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas published by the the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) on Friday. Five weeks into the vaccination campaign, they noted, pharmaceutical companies have already delivered about 20 million doses of vaccines and in Greece, more than 338,000 citizens have been vaccinated, while the second dose has already been secured. A total of 62,000 Greeks have already received both doses, they pointed out.

As they said, they are are aware that these doses are not enough, but they are important. In February, EU countries will receive about 33 million additional doses and another 55 million in March.

The full article follows:

Last March, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Today, less than a year later, three vaccines against the virus have been approved in the EU and more will follow.

It usually takes about ten years for a vaccine to be developed. This time, however, it took only 10 months. The first COVID-19 vaccine was discovered in Europe and is now being mass-produced within the EU. Through pre-purchase agreements, we prepaid money to vaccine developers, not only to develop mass production capacity, but also to produce vaccines directly for all Europeans. The aim was for them to be able to make immediate deliveries as soon as the vaccine was approved. An amount of 2.9 billion euros was invested in advance, in addition to the many billions that Europe invests each year in a wider research ecosystem that makes these successes feasible. All European citizens must be able to make use of the benefits of this European investment without discrimination.

In total, the EU has secured 2.3 billion doses of these vaccines for its citizens and neighbouring countries. This was the right approach: to stay united in our fight against the virus and to work together, at a European level, to tackle a virus that knows no borders. From the beginning, all member states, regardless of their size, need to have equal access to vaccines. Imagine what would have happened if only some member states had access to vaccines, which might have happened without our multiplicative collective bargaining power. What would this mean for the single market and for the unity of Europe?

This was avoided by working closely with all 27 national governments. In June, a management board was set up with the member-states, which meets up to seven times a month. There is a constant flow of information and all decisions are taken jointly on a European basis. After checking over 100 companies that were researching vaccines at the time, a portfolio of the six most promising was formed in a short period of time. Last summer, no one knew which of them would eventually take the lead. We now know that the European approach to a very large portfolio of vaccines was the right one. We now have three approved vaccines, and the three companies BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Astra Zeneca have started delivering them. And more will follow soon.

Some of those who criticise the European approach are blaming us for being late in making decisions. But could we have acted faster? Or could a member-state have acted faster on its own? Would concluding a contract faster be a guarantee of faster delivery of large quantities? Honestly, we do not think that would happen. The production of a new vaccine is an extremely complex and sensitive task. The three vaccine manufacturers, who have developed successful vaccines so far, had to significantly reduce some of their deliveries during the first stage of production, due to problems in the production process or lack of important components.

Ultimately, vaccination means injecting biologically active substances into healthy organisms. Safety and efficiency are therefore a top priority. That is why in Europe we did not take any shortcuts on the licensing process by the European Medicines Agency. This process, which takes three to four weeks, is necessary because it builds security and confidence. This explains, for example, why we started a little later than the UK, as well as the current difference in the number of vaccinations. However, the provision of the vaccines is fully underway and citizens can be sure that no concessions have been made in terms of safety.

Europe is not participating in a speed race but in a security race.

Vaccinations in the EU started at the end of December. Today, five weeks later, companies have already delivered about 20 million doses of vaccines. In Greece, more than 338,000 citizens have been vaccinated, with the second dose secured. Sixty-two thousand Greeks have already received both doses.

We know that these doses are not enough, but they are important. In February, EU countries will receive about 33 million extra doses and another 55 million in March. According to conservative estimates, in the second quarter of 2021, another 300 million doses are expected to be delivered. A total of 400 million by June.

We will monitor this process closely and carefully. We understand that some companies have some problems with mass production. After all, we have never in the past had such a rapid increase in production. Recently, a CEO of a company told us that in 2019 his company produced 100,000 doses of vaccines. While this year they plan to produce 1 billion doses! This is an incredible, unprecedented increase. We applaud and support these efforts.

But we also need transparency about where these vaccines are going. This is especially true when a company does not fulfill its promises to the European Union. That is why we have introduced a mechanism for transparency and licensing: in order to have an overall picture of the exports that have taken place and are about to take place. We do not intend to impose restrictions on companies that honour contracts – we have just approved two shipments for Canada and one for the United Kingdom. But if a company tells us it can't meet EU orders, then we need to know what it delivers to others.

As we are fighting the virus, it is unfortunately constantly mutating. We are concerned about the new variants, although scientists are reassuring us that our vaccines seem to be treating them effectively at the moment. But because we are going through a lot of pandemics, we want to be prepared for a scenario in which current vaccines do not deal effectively with the virus. That is why a few days ago, in a meeting with the heads of the vaccine companies and the scientists, we agreed to closely monitor the evolution of the virus, in order to ensure that this data is communicated to the companies and the European Medicines Agency. We want to work closely with scientists and industry so that we can quickly develop, approve and produce vaccines that respond to any mutations in the virus. Above all, we want to increase productivity in Europe because vaccines are a common good and their importance is growing over time.

Our responsibility is not limited to Europe's borders. It will not end when most adult Europeans are vaccinated. That is why, from day one, we have been calling for a global response to the pandemic. The Commission has organised two donor conferences, raising 16 billion euros. We helped set up the Covax mechanism to ensure that high-income countries invest in the supply of vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. Together with member states, as a "Europe Group", we are one of the largest sponsors of Covax, with 870 million euros.

This pandemic is a difficult time for Europe and the world. We are all fighting this together and we must remain united against our only – and common enemy – the virus.

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