A shot in the arm: EU vaccine program struggles to speed up

BRUSSELS (AP) — Two months after its first vaccine shots, the European Union is still struggling to get its COVID-19 inoculation drive up to speed. EU leaders are meeting Thursday to jump-start the process, fearing that new virus variants might spread faster than Europe’s response.

At a video conference, the leaders will look at ways to improve the bloc’s vaccine rollout, as the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, presses pharmaceutical companies to respect the terms of their contracts. Officials also want to try to fast-track vaccine authorizations.

More than 21 million coronavirus cases have been recorded and some 515,000 people have died from it in the EU’s 27 countries, according to the European Centre for Disease Protection and Control.

Italy, France, Germany and Spain have the most coronavirus deaths in the EU, although all trail non-EU member Britain, which has Europe’s highest virus death toll at over 121,000.

Given the spread of the disease — the Czech prime minister is worried about “a total catastrophe” at overburdened hospitals, Germany fears the impact of new variants, the Netherlands is seeing a rise in cases — there should be little appetite to ease up on travel and other restrictions too soon.

“The epidemiological situation remains serious, and the new variants pose additional challenges. We must therefore uphold tight restrictions while stepping up efforts to accelerate the provision of vaccines,” the leaders will say, according to a draft summit statement seen by The Associated Press.

But public pressure to relax measures is building. The Netherlands has eased some lockdown measures in what Prime Minister Mark Rutte called a calculated risk to make the year-long crisis “bearable.” Denmark just allowed high school students to partially return to classes.

In Belgium, Jean-Marc Nollet, head of the francophone Greens party that is part of the ruling coalition, openly said he no longer followed his own government’s limits on social contacts because “I am a human being and human contact is something vital.”

The leaders will say, however, that the crisis is far from over, especially as vaccine production lags.

“We need to urgently accelerate the authorization, production and distribution of vaccines, as well as vaccination. We also need to enhance our surveillance and detection capacity in order to identify variants as early as possible so as to control their spread,” the draft statement said.

The commission has sealed deals with several companies for well over 2 billion vaccine shots — far more than the EU population of around 450 million — but only three have been authorized: jabs from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca, which all involve two shots over several weeks. In March, the bloc could also authorize the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine.

But the EU was heavily criticized for taking almost a month longer than Britain to approve the first vaccines and for lagging so far behind in vaccinating its people. The EU leaders’ debate will focus as much on speeding up authorizations as boosting vaccine production rates through new facilities and cutting delivery bottlenecks.

Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said one way might be to “agree upon legislation to allow for the emergency authorization of vaccines at the EU level. To date, this is only possible at national level.”

And as curfew-weary, mask-wearing European citizens hope for relief — and the prospect of a real summer vacation this year — this summit will also focus on when to ease restrictions and the possibility of a future vaccination certificate so people can travel more conveniently.

Such a certificate has been demanded by southern EU nations that depend heavily on tourism, and they consider it a way to stave off a second disastrous summer season.

An official from an EU nation, who asked not to be identified because the preparations were still ongoing, said talks would also center on ways to dovetail any EU vaccine certificate with similar efforts at the World Health Organization, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Air Transport Association.

Still, European travel restrictions don’t look like they will be easing anytime soon. Belgium, home to the EU’s institutions, has a ban on all nonessential travel that could remain through March. The country has been criticized by some neighbors for what they see as a disproportionate use of border controls.

“For the time being, nonessential travel needs to be restricted,” the leaders say in their draft statement, which still could be modified. But they add “the unhindered flow of goods and services within the single market must be ensured.”

With leaders conscious that the pandemic will not end unless it’s defeated everywhere, summit talks will also touch on getting vaccines to other countries in need, notably in Africa, through the U.N.-backed COVAX program.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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