The Commission has bought the vaccines. Now it’s countries’ turn to get ready to use them.
Back in June, the Commission unveiled its first vaccine strategy to advance purchase possible coronavirus vaccines from companies. After months of sometimes controversial talks, the Commission completed contracts with three producers and is in the process of completing three others. (EU diplomats have told POLITICO that the Commission is negotiating on a seventh.)
Issued on Thursday, the Commission’s latest communication seeks to harmonize countries’ vaccination plans once a jab is approved by regulators and ready to use. Above all, a vaccine should be made free for citizens and given first to key populations, including health workers and vulnerable groups, the Commission said.
Now, it’s time for EU countries to get ready — and get on the same page — to roll out coronavirus vaccines.
But harmonization hasn’t been the EU’s strong suit. Countries have improved from the early days of the pandemic, when they imposed export bans and fought over personal protective equipment. But they’re still not deploying the same testing policies, quarantine rules, travel guidance or tracing apps. Most recently, countries couldn’t agree to harmonized travel restrictions after more than a month of negotiations.
Rolling out a vaccine will be one of the next major tests of countries’ willingness to coordinate. Each country could — in the end — choose to vaccinate different populations first or charge different prices. They also might have to grapple with different hurdles in vaccinating their citizens.
During a press conference, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides was optimistic about the “unprecedented coordination” between EU countries, but warned that time will tell if this holds throughout the winter months.
“Unfortunately, as in every crisis, as a temporary time of extreme pressure, the situation on the ground is putting our coordination to the test,” she said.
For months, the Commission has tried to push countries along, but progress is mixed. Kyriakides noted there are still some EU countries that haven’t told the Commission how they’ve implemented the Commission’s preparedness plan from July.
“Unless we have this information, we are not able to follow and see how implementation is happening,” she said. “We need to have the information [on] how this is moving.”
Countries have been on board with advance purchasing the vaccines, but the Commission, in its paper, acknowledges that distributing them will be “a considerable challenge requiring a strong collaboration and concerted action” across EU countries.
“While the responsibility for health policy lies with Member States, and national strategies may differ … it is nevertheless important to ensure the coordination of national responses to the pandemic,” the Commission wrote.
Kyriakides wouldn’t speculate on when these vaccines will be ready, but when they are, the Commission will distribute the vaccines according to population size to all EU countries at the same time. Another EU official reminded reporters during a subsequent briefing that all vaccines purchased by the Commission won’t be ready at the same time.
The Commission said it has discussed flexible ways to label and package vaccines, which industry has said would make it quicker to distribute their jab.
Countries also need to fight vaccine hesitancy head-on by stressing the EU safety standards required; get systems in place to share data with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC); and prepare to study the safety and effectiveness of vaccines independent from pharma companies, it said.
The Commission’s paper lays out a schedule for countries to get their vaccination policy together. Starting now, it says, countries need to get the transport and storage of vaccines ready; train health staff; and ensure vaccines are accessible and affordable.
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