Oh dear. This morning Sweden has become the latest European country to suspend use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. It follows reports that some people have suffered blood clots after being given the jab despite AstraZeneca's data showing there have only been 37 such reports among the 17 million people across Europe who have been given the vaccine.
Yet while some European health ministries across the continent are raising concerns about its effectiveness, others are lambasting AstraZeneca for failing to deliver enough jabs. French Europe minister Clement Beaune appeared on Radio Classique this morning and raised the prospect of the EU actually suing the company over breach of contract. Citing lower-than-expected deliveries, he claimed: 'Europe is not going to be some sort of cuddly 'care bear' that hands over its money and then expects nothing in return.'
It is the latest chapter in the unhappy saga of the European Commission's procurement and rollout efforts with the Oxford jab. Over the past eight weeks, they have gone from saying they need more of the jab to saying the jab is quasi-ineffective to saying the jab is fine to several member states banning the jab to the French politicians talking about taking legal action towards the company for not suppling... you guessed it... enough of the jab.
Even ardent Europhiles are now up in arms about how the roll out has been handled. Lionel Barber, the former Financial Times editor and holder of the Legion d’Honneur, tweeted: 'The EU approach on AZ and vaccines in general is all over the shop. First, it centralises procurement via the Commission; now Germany joins Danes, Irish etc in suspending AZ use over potential blood clot risk, even though European Medicines Agency backs usage.' Go figure!
Below Mr S has provided a handy timeline of how exactly Brussels's love/hate relationship with stockpiling the injections has changed over that time.
Friday 22 January: AstraZeneca tells Brussels there will be a 60 per cent shortfall due to production issues in its European supply chain which leaves the EU expecting deliveries of 31 million doses by the end of March instead of the agreed 80 million.
Saturday 23 January: Italy's former prime minister Giuseppe Conte threatened to sue AstraZeneca after it downgraded the number of doses it expected to deliver in the first quarter of 2021.
Monday 25 January: Handelsblatt newspaper quotes German government sources claiming that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is only 8 per cent effective among the over-65s — a claim which was allegedly based on the misreading of an Excel spreadsheet. The German health ministry publicly rebuts the claims along with AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Thursday 28 January: German health authorities say the vaccine should not be administered to over-65s owing to a lack of data for this age group. Austria, France, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and the Netherlands subsequently do the same while Belgium and Spain limit it to under 55s and Italy initially limits the jab to under 55s before raising it to adults up to 65 a month later.
That same day the EU orders officials to inspect AstraZeneca’s facility in Belgium to confirm supply issues after a row over whether the trade bloc is receiving its fair share from the company’s two UK plants. AstraZeneca points out that the UK’s contract was signed three months before Brussels and it confirmed that vaccines made in the UK would be supplied there first.
Friday 29 January: The European Medicines Agency approves use of the jab for all adults over the age of 18 – a month after the UK. Hours later French president Emmanuel Macron claims the jab is ‘quasi-ineffective’ and the European Commission releases a copy of its contract with AstraZeneca.
Brussels subsequently makes moves to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to prevent vaccines entering the UK — a move that enrages both republicans and unionists as it would have introduced checks at the Irish border. After a fierce backlash, the commission drops this bid. Following talks with Boris Johnson, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says that ‘there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities’.
Saturday 30 January: The European Commission introduces an export authorisation requirement for vaccines produced in the EU and being exported elsewhere.
Friday 26 February: Amid concerns about the slow take up of the vaccine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is asked in a newspaper interview whether she would volunteer to be administered with the vaccine. Merkel replies: ‘I am 66 years old and I do not belong to the recommended group for AstraZeneca.’
Monday 1 March: The French government performs a U-turn after health minister Olivier Veron says that the vaccine will now be made available to those between 65-75 with serious health risks. It comes after a new study from Public Health England showed a single dose of the Oxford vaccine offers dramatic protection against hospital admission and severe disease in older people. Jonathan Van-Tam says the data ‘vindicated’ the UK’s decision to roll it out to older age groups.
Thursday 4 March: Italy and the European Commission block a shipment of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine destined for Australia under the law introduced 30 January. Reasons cited by Italy for blocking the shipment include that Australia is considered ‘not vulnerable’ because of a low number of Covid cases; a shortage of vaccines both in Italy and the EU and the high number of doses included in the shipment. The vaccines are intended to be redistributed across the rest of the EU.
Tuesday 9 March: Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, accuses Britain of banning the export of Covid-19 vaccines including AstraZeneca stating in an online newsletter: ‘The United Kingdom and the United States have imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory.’ Boris Johnson denies this charge at PMQs.
Wednesday 10 March: Following reports in Austria that a 49-year-old nurse died of ‘severe blood coagulation problems’ days after receiving an anti-Covid shot, the European Medicines Agency says a preliminary probe showed that the batch of AstraZeneca vaccines used was likely not to blame.
Thursday 11 March: Denmark become the first country to suspend all AstraZeneca vaccinations for two weeks after a 60-year-old woman who had been vaccinated formed a blood clot and died. Austria and Norway follow suit. Other countries, including France, say they will continue to administer the vaccine, citing the EU drug regulator's ruling that the AstraZeneca jab was still safe to use. French Health Minister Olivier Véran says he has consulted with the French medicines agency, which believes there is ‘no need’ to suspend vaccinations.
Friday 12 March: The International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis, representing medical experts around the world, says that ‘the small number of reported thrombotic events relative to the millions of administered Covid-19 vaccinations does not suggest a direct link.’
Monday 15 March: Germany, Italy, and France all temporarily suspend use of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University over blood clot fears. The European Medicines Agency releases a statement which notes that the number of such events in vaccinated people ‘seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population.’
Tuesday 16 March: Sweden becomes the latest European country to pause use of the vaccine as World Health Organization safety experts prepare to meet to discuss the jab. British experts are reported as being 'baffled' over the delay with Professor Adam Finn, a member of the WHO's working group on Covid vaccines, warning that stopping rollout in this way is 'highly undesirable' and risks undermine confidence in the vaccine, costing lives in the long-term.