Daily briefing

Macron and Commission behaviour increasingly odd as EU vaccine crisis deepens

BY Maggie Pagano | tweet maggiepagano   /  29 January 2021

This is the daily briefing evening email for subscribers from the Reaction team.

Zut alors. What planet is France’s Jupiterian leader on? Just hours before the European Medicines Agency was due to give the green light to the AstraZeneca vaccine, the French President made the astonishing claim that the vaccine “doesn’t work” on people over the age of 65 – and possibly even 60 and over.

Hours later the EMA gave the vaccine the go-ahead, for all ages. What was Emmanuel Macron playing at? What is Macron ever playing at? We can only guess but it would seem he doesn’t want to be left out of the row between AstraZeneca and the European Commission over supplies, or its spat with Germany’s health ministry which has recommended the jab should not be given to those under 65 because of insufficient data.

What Macron did say, according to reports from Politico, is that: “The real problem on AstraZeneca is that it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to. We’re waiting for the EMA results, but today everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.”

Understanding the efficacy of the vaccine for this age group is of course vital as most of those who are hospitalised with the Covid-19 virus are in this most at risk group.

Yet the EMA – which has been poring over the data for weeks – says it is. More precisely: “There are not yet enough results in older participants (over 55 years old) to provide a figure for how well the vaccine will work in this group. However, protection is expected, given that an immune response is seen in this age group and based on experience with other vaccines; as there is reliable information on safety in this population, EMA’s scientific experts considered that the vaccine can be used in older adults.”

Sounds pretty unambiguous to me.

Who is right? While Macron added that he did not have any new revelations about the jab proving it to be “ineffective”, he did complain there was a “lack of transparency” in the data AstraZeneca had published.

Meanwhile, the row between the EC and AstraZeneca hots up by the hour. As of tomorrow, the EC has declared that exports of “certain products” will need export authorisation from national governments within the EU, and names 100 countries that the regulations apply to.

What a mess. And one it seems that EC chief, Ursula von der Leyen, continues to dig her heels into ever deeper. Her latest claim is that the contract with AstraZeneca – which it published in part today – is crystal clear, and that the contract has binding orders for Astra to deliver the agreed amounts in the first three quarters of this year, and that means switching supplies from the UK.

She is right – the Astra contract is crystal clear. In Clause 5.4 the contract sets out that the pharma giant will commit “its Best Reasonable Efforts (as defined below) to build capacity to manufacture 300 million Doses of the Vaccine, at no profit and no loss to AstraZeneca…”

As any student of contract law will know, Best Reasonable Efforts means exactly that: it will do all that is possible to fulfil the contract. But AstraZeneca boss, Pascal Soriot, has made it crystal clear that problems with production capacity mean it cannot fulfil the order until it has met the UK’s order. Yet Soriot has also bent over backwards to say that, once the UK contract is fulfilled, production will switch to meeting the EC’s order.

This sounds utterly reasonable, and is entirely within the law and I suspect, when the EC climbs down from its high horse, it will have to accept that Astra has the legal edge. But what this bust-up shows once again is how the EC is no different to a medieval monarch, strutting around furious that its minions have not carried out his or her demands.

This is not the moment to gloat about how Brexit has allowed the UK to make its own decision and its own orders. But this row does reveal exactly why the euro-sceptics have been arguing for years that the EU should give up pretensions of being a political superstate, and that nation states are still best placed to make their own big commercial decisions, particularly in such harrowing times.

As if to prove the point, in another vaccine twist, Hungary has decided to go it alone outside the EC machine and order a big batch of Russia’s Sputnik vaccines. And Angela Merkel has agreed with President Putin that she will help manufacture and distribute Sputnik in Germany. Hey ho.

Raise a toast to Kate Bingham

Let’s all raise a glass to toast Kate Bingham who broke her own Dry January rule to celebrate the latest news that another vaccine, Novavax, could soon be added to the UK’s arsenal.

Bingham, who took part herself in the Novavax clinical trials, was the former vaccines tsarina hired by No 10 last year to run the government’s Vaccine Taskforce and decide on which vaccines to pre-order and how many to buy.

Trials for this latest vaccine – which will be made in the UK later this year – show it is 89.3 per cent effective at fighting coronavirus, including the mutant strain found in Kent.

Now Novavax hopes its vaccine will be approved over the next few weeks, joining the AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines being rolled-out. A fifth from Janssen is also due for approval.

Yet despite her fantastic efforts, Bingham, who is the wife of Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, has been much maligned in the press which went far to undermine her position. Sadly, much of the vitriol is said to have come from No 10 itself under the former Cummings-Cain regime.

Boris Johnson should make amends and show that honours really can go to those who deserve them. Dame Bingham has a nice ring.

Weekend

Let’s also celebrate that we have just about made it through the last week of January. Hurray. Life can only get better – and the days longer – and there is much in Reaction Weekend tomorrow to lift your spirits.

Have a good weekend.

Maggie Pagano,
Executive Editor


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