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Europe's COVID-19 Vaccination Effort Is Criticized For Slow Start

NOEL KING, HOST:

Back in August, the drug company AstraZeneca signed a deal with the European Union. It promised to provide 300 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine. That didn't happen. It fell short. NPR's Rob Schmitz has been following this from Berlin. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: How many doses did the E.U. get if it didn't get 300 million? And what went so wrong here?

SCHMITZ: Well, we're not really sure yet what the final answer on the number is yet, but...

KING: Gotcha.

SCHMITZ: And whether we're going to get it is - you know, as far as what went wrong, it depends on who you want to believe. AstraZeneca's CEO, Pascal Soriot, says his company is playing catch up and that the source of the delay is a production facility in Belgium. But EU leaders suspect this is an excuse for not being able to fulfill the bloc's initial order of 300 million doses, as you mentioned, because it's been too focused on getting its vaccine to the U.K. at the expense of the EU, a hint that there's a bit of vaccine nationalism because AstraZeneca is a British-Swedish company. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tried to lay down the law last week in a public address. And here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Europe invested billions to help develop the world's first COVID-19 vaccines to create a truly global, common good. And now the companies must deliver. They must honor their obligations.

SCHMITZ: And, Noel, von der Leyen was so angry about AstraZeneca's vaccine shortage that she had EU investigators visit the company's plant in Belgium to confiscate documents to get to the bottom of the shortage. And she then ordered restrictions on exports of the vaccine to the U.K., which did not go over well with the Brits. And then she reversed that decision over the weekend.

KING: OK, this is interesting. And the stakes are quite high and the accusations are quite serious. Is Ursula von der Leyen the only person who's angry? Who else in Europe is saying what?

SCHMITZ: I think everyone - it's fair to say everyone is angry right now. And von der Leyen is under fire for the EU's slow rollout of vaccines for its 27 member states. And the main criticism here is how long it's taken the EU to approve vaccinations, as well as the EU's seeming inability to change gears when it became clear last autumn that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were ahead of the rest in their trials. Many Europeans criticized the EU for not ordering more of those vaccines at that time. Last week, the German daily Spiegel ran what can only be described as a hit piece on von der Leyen herself, focusing on her history of failings as an EU politician. So it's getting a little nasty. Europeans have been watching for months as their American and British friends are being vaccinated and they feel left behind. The U.K. has administered 14 doses per 100 people; the U.S., nine doses per hundred. Compare that to just three doses per hundred Germans and two doses per hundred French, and you've got a lot of frustration here in Europe.

KING: And so what does that mean for EU member states who are trying to get their citizens vaccinated?

SCHMITZ: It means they're going to have to wait longer. AstraZeneca isn't the only drugmaker facing production delays to the EU; Pfizer-BioNTech is, too. And that's because the production capacity is not quite there yet. But that could change in the coming months. BioNTech, which is based in Germany, is putting the finishing touches on a new production facility in Marburg, Germany, which could speed up the rollout. That'll be up and running by the end of this month. Other companies have also offered to help out with production, and that should speed it up, too. Some countries like Germany are simply making their own bilateral deals. Germany ordered 30 million of its own doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and it was roundly criticized for it at the time. This was back in the fall. But now, given how poorly the EU has handled the vaccine rollout to its member states, it seems like it was a pretty wise move.

KING: And, Rob, pull back a second, if you would. What are caseloads like across Europe these days?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I think it's helpful to look at the incidence rate, and that is how many individuals are infected per 100,000 people over the past week. You know, currently, that number in Spain is more than 500, which is incredibly high. In France, more than 200 per 100,000 have been infected in the past week. But here in Germany, things are gradually getting better. The country's lockdown has managed to get that number down below 100. But it's been a struggle. And for much of Europe, the vaccine is sorely needed right now.

KING: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.