Merkel defends 'slower' EU vaccine rollout

Deborah COLE with Michelle FITZPATRICK in Frankfurt
·4-min read

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday defended the European Union's troubled vaccine drive, saying there were "good reasons" the rollout had got off to a slower start than in some other countries.

Speaking after a vaccine "summit" that brought together key players, Merkel renewed a promise to offer every German citizen a vaccine by the end of September.

Merkel had convened the online talks in response to growing anger in the 27-member bloc over the sluggish rollout of Covid-19 jabs, which has been beset with delivery delays and piled political pressure on EU leaders.

"It is true that in some areas, the pace became slower, but there were good reasons for it to be slower," Merkel told reporters in Berlin.

Merkel, the leader of Europe's largest economy, acknowledged that the United States, Israel and Britain were further along with their inoculations.

But she said the EU had deliberately avoided rushed emergency approvals, as seen in the UK, to bolster public "confidence" in the jabs.

The EU had also at times negotiated "for a very long time" to ensure pharma companies took on enough liability, she said.

And the bloc chose not to sacrifice data protection, Merkel added, in a nod to Israel's deal with Pfizer/BioNTech to offer data on its inoculation campaign in exchange for doses.

German media has been scathing about the EU's troubled vaccine drive, with the topselling Bild daily calling it a "disaster".

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, has come in for particular criticism.

A European source said Monday that Berlin was putting "tremendous" pressure on the Commission to improve the vaccine rollout, adding that von der Leyen's position had been "severely weakened".

Von der Leyen did not join Merkel's meeting with top German politicians, but the EU commissioners for health and the internal market did.

A string of vaccine makers also took part, including Pfizer, BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and CureVac.

"The months ahead will be challenging. We must all continue working together in solidarity to find solutions," said Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.

- Fresh pledges on deliveries -

There was some good news from pharmaceutical companies in the run-up to Merkel's conference, with new pledges for quicker deliveries.

BioNTech and Pfizer, whose vaccine was the first to be approved in the West, promised to send up to 75 million extra doses to the bloc in the spring thanks to progress at key manufacturing sites.

On Sunday, von der Leyen said that AstraZeneca would finally deliver 40 million doses in total in the first quarter -- nine million doses or 30 percent more than it had previously said it could.

An EU source said the first deliveries would start in the second week of February.

According to a German health ministry document shared at the summit, Johnson & Johnson is expected to seek EU approval for its Covid-19 jab in late February.

German biotech firm CureVac and US company Novavax, whose vaccines are still undergoing large-scale trials, are tipped to follow suit in May, the document showed.

Merkel reiterated that supply would remain tight for the first three months of 2021 but the pace would pick up quickly once production capacities are enlarged and more vaccines are approved.

"Our pledge that we will be able to offer a vaccine to every citizen by the end of the third quarter... still stands," she said, adding that she understood "the disappointment" of those who had hoped to be inoculated sooner.

- Election year -

Like other EU leaders, Merkel has come under fire for the decision to pursue an EU-wide rather than a national strategy on inoculations.

She has said a go-it-alone drive would have inflated prices, left pockets of the continent more vulnerable to the pandemic and poisoned political unity in the bloc.

The German debate has been supercharged by the start of a general election year to choose a successor to Merkel, who has led the country since 2005.

The Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in Merkel's loveless "grand coalition" government, at the weekend demanded she produce a "roadmap" toward the September vaccinations goal.