This week it has been reported that the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is ‘exploring options’ for its COVID-19 vaccine business, including a sale. This is not entirely surprising. The company has not traditionally focused on vaccines and its vital contribution to the fight against the coronavirus may never make a profit.
However, AstraZeneca’s experience still reflects badly on many politicians and policy-makers, especially in Europe. At every stage, certain national governments, and the European Commission itself, appear to have done their best to make life as difficult as possible for those trying to help.
Some mistakes were probably inevitable during the fog of the pandemic, and hindsight is a wonderful thing. The EU was not alone in messing things up either. The Australian government has also been widely criticised for ‘anti-AstraZenecism’ and for mixed messages about the safety of the company’s jab. The US authorities have been slow to approve it as well.
Nonetheless, the EU has fallen badly short in at least four areas.
First, the slow approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine illustrates the EU’s overly-cautious attitude towards anything new. The contrast with the nimbler approach taken by the UK regulator is particularly stark because, at the time, the UK was still bound by EU rules.
Indeed, the reluctance of the EU and some national governments to approve the vaccine because of a tiny number of cases of blood clots may soon become a textbook example of the problems that can be caused by the ‘precautionary principle’.
Second, the EU’s botched procurement programme illustrated the European Commission’s tendency to overreach.
On paper, it did make sense for EU governments to club together to negotiate a better deal and to ensure that vaccines were distributed fairly. In practice, the Commission simply demonstrated that it was not up to the job – and then had the nerve to try to sue AstraZeneca for imagined contract failings and for production problems that were hardly the fault of the company itself.
So much too for the argument that a single nation state acting on its own cannot be expected to negotiate as good a deal as the EU. The UK may have had to pay a higher price for its vaccines, but in the context of the pandemic this was a cost worth paying.
Third, the EU’s vaccine rollout has been undermined by nationalism and protectionism. Some politicians – notably President Macron – seemed to go out of their way to undermine confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine. Perhaps this was just incompetence (there has been no shortage of that in the UK either). But I’m not alone in wondering if he might have responded differently if the vaccine had been created in Paris, rather than Oxford.
We have also been treated to repeated claims that vaccines that happen to have been finished in an EU country somehow belong to the EU, even if they were developed and partly funded elsewhere, and rely on components which were imported.
Fourth, the EU is a world-leader in antipathy towards private companies and the profit motive – even though AstraZeneca itself was providing vaccines at cost. To be fair again, the European Commission has been more sceptical of calls to waive patent rights than some national governments, or the Biden White House.
However, some European politicians and officials appear to welcome any opportunity to bash ‘Big Pharma’. The sight of companies being sued, and even raided by armed police, is hardly likely to encourage global businesses to invest in the EU.
In short, AstraZeneca has bent over backwards to do the right thing and been punished every step of the way. Who can blame them for being reluctant to repeat the experiment? The EU and EU leaders deserve plenty of stick for that.
This piece was first published by the Daily Telegraph on 30th July 2021