How WHO pressure for global vaccines shook Europe

Last April, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen added Europe to a global effort to ensure equitable access to a vaccine, which she said would be implanted “in every corner. of the world”.

But despite promising billions of dollars for the scheme established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and publicly endorsing it, officials from the European Union and member states made several choices that undermined the campaign, internal documents seen by Reuters and interviews with officials and EU diplomats show.

A year after its launch, Europe and the rest of the world have yet to donate a single dose through the vaccine scheme, which is part of an unprecedented effort to distribute vaccines, tests and medicines to fight the pandemic. Diplomats say Europe’s ambivalence partly resulted from a shortage of supplies and a slow start to the global campaign, but also from concerns that the EU’s efforts would go unnoticed in a vaccine diplomacy war, where highly publicized promises from China and from Russia were gaining ground, even in their own country. yard.

The program, co-led by international agencies and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), is a mass purchase platform for sharing doses around the world. But with the government of former U.S. President Donald Trump having turned his back on WHO, the plan, called COVAX, took time to gain support and focused on using funds from rich countries to buy doses for less developed countries.

Von der Leyen presented Europe’s support for the COVAX campaign as a gesture of international unity. EU officials, in particular, present the bloc’s vaccine goals in a less altruistic light.

“It is also a matter of visibility,” that is, public relations, said Ilze Juhansone, secretary general of the EU Commission and chief civil servant of the Commission, to ambassadors at a meeting in Brussels in February, according to a diplomatic note seen by Reuters. Juhansone declined to comment.

A senior diplomat said that many of the meeting’s participants felt that Europe, which is by far the largest vaccine exporter in the West, had goals that would be better met by placing “more blue flags with yellow stars” on vaccine packages and sending them out. them out, rather than through COVAX.

Brussels, which is coordinating vaccine negotiations with its members, has set aside a huge surplus – 2.6 billion doses for a population of 450 million so far. It pledged nearly 2.5 billion euros ($ 3 billion) in support of COVAX. This made the EU the biggest financier until the government of US President Joe Biden pledged $ 4 billion this year to the plan, which aims to distribute 2 billion doses by the end of the year.

But supplies for Europe’s own population are lagging behind, and despite donating funds, the EU and its 27 governments have also hampered COVAX in a number of ways. Like other wealthy countries, EU countries decided not to buy their own vaccines through COVAX and competed with it to buy vaccines when stocks were tight. All but Germany offered the general program less money than requested.

More than that, Europe has promoted a parallel vaccine donation system that it would administer on its own, to raise the profile of the EU.

“There is great frustration because there is a feeling that the race has now started, but we are not really outside the starting blocks,” a senior diplomat told Reuters.

“We are spending money on COVAX and the return in terms of political visibility is nil.”

Russia says it wants to supply vaccines directly to countries. China has pledged support for COVAX. But both Moscow and Beijing have separate agreements to deliver more than 1 billion doses to Africa, Latin America and EU partners such as Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and countries in the Balkans that are candidates to join the bloc.

Most of the doses will take time to be delivered, but Russia and China have already exported about twice the deliveries of COVAX, of about 40 million doses.

COVAX was also hit in March by restrictions on vaccine exports from India, which has reduced supply to its main vaccine supplier.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus repeatedly called on rich countries to put aside nationalist impulses and share vaccines, calling the current situation “a shocking imbalance”. Britain, which is not a member of the EU, for example, has already injected as many injections as COVAX has administered in more than 100 countries.

COVAX officials told Reuters they had received sufficient funds by the end of last year, but came later than expected.

A spokeswoman for GAVI, the vaccine alliance that runs the scheme and speaks on behalf of COVAX on these issues, said the EU’s support was “unmistakable” and that it expects the doses to be donated soon. WHO added that von der Leyen’s personal support was “invaluable”.

An EU Commission spokesman told Reuters that COVAX has been very successful in structuring global collaboration and obtaining millions of doses. He called the program “our best vehicle for delivering international vaccine solidarity” and the EU’s “main channel for sharing vaccines”.


Part of COVAX’s difficulty is structural. Soon after it was created, wealthier countries were sealing advance orders with pharmaceutical companies to guarantee doses as soon as they were available. The vaccination scheme has always depended on the wealthy states to raise money, which they were slow to give.

COVAX was intended to be a platform for countries to purchase vaccines, which would give them bargaining power and allow them to dispense doses among those most in need around the world. Recognizing that stocks would be scarce, its initial objective was to distribute doses to at least 20% of the population of each country to cover those most at risk.

At an internal meeting last July, an EU Commission official told ambassadors that member states should not buy their doses through COVAX, as they would come very slowly, diplomatic notes show. Subsequently, the Commission set a target to vaccinate 70% of adults in the EU by the end of September.

COVAX changed some of its terms the following month to try to convince wealthy nations to join, but no EU nation has signed up to use the platform in its vaccination campaigns. The EU provided financial guarantees to COVAX to pay for the vaccines, but it also made it more difficult for COVAX to do so, by providing for the purchase of many more doses than the bloc needed.

In November, the EU promised more money to COVAX, but only after signing contracts with vaccine manufacturers for nearly 1.5 billion doses – more than half of Brussels’ estimate of global production capacity for this year, documents show. internal.

Although Europe has reserved such a large share, the Commission told diplomats at a meeting that month that COVAX was very slow in obtaining doses.

It was then that the Commission raised the possibility of creating its own mechanism to send shots to poor countries outside the EU.


Within a month, France began to implement that plan. The photos would be sent directly from the manufacturers – possibly before the start of deliveries through COVAX – and labeled as “Team Europe” donations, said a preliminary plan.

The measure, revealed at the time by Reuters, caused protests among COVAX officials.

One told Reuters in April that the plan was driven by France’s desire to send photos to Africa, where France previously had colonies and smelled of colonialism. French diplomats said they have never shown a preference for any country and that Africa is the one that needs it most.

EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said in mid-January that the EU plan would be taken forward – because COVAX was not yet fully operational. Countries to focus on include the Western Balkans, the EU’s southern and eastern neighbors and Africa.

The following month, having reserved more than 2 billion doses, but with real deliveries affected by production problems, the EU doubled COVAX’s funding to 1 billion euros. Russia and China have already delivered millions of doses worldwide. COVAX has not yet delivered any. And the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, was publicly losing patience.

Europe and the United States must quickly send enough vaccines to Africa to inoculate health workers on the continent or risk losing influence to Russia and China, Macron said in a speech at a security conference, without specifying how these donations should be made.

Unless rich countries accelerate deliveries, “our friends in Africa will, under justified pressure from their people, buy doses of the Chinese and Russians,” Macron said at the conference. “And the strength of the West will be a concept, not a reality.”

Despite Macron’s urgency, France’s financial support for the WHO’s overall program – to cover tests and treatments, as well as vaccines – was limited.

WHO asked countries for contributions commensurate with their economic power. France has committed $ 190 million – about 13% of the $ 1.2 billion requested, shows a WHO document dated March 26.

Other EU countries are also well below expected contributions; some gave zero. But Germany helped to make up for it by publicly promising $ 2.6 billion, well above the requested $ 2 billion.

French diplomats said the country’s contributions are expected to increase soon.


On February 24, COVAX dispatched its first vaccines. The EU softened its criticism.

At a meeting on March 9, at the height of the European Union’s own problems in obtaining vaccines for its own citizens, a Commission official told diplomats that COVAX was the main tool for donating vaccines to other countries.

But the official said that Europe still needs its own mechanism, because COVAX had money, but only a small part of the doses it needed. And the EU scheme would “have the advantage of giving us visibility,” said the official.

At the same meeting, EU ambassadors saw data compiled by the EU’s foreign affairs service, which, according to those in attendance, revealed how far the bloc’s vaccine diplomacy was lagging behind competitors.

They found that Russia had orders for 645 million doses of its Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine from dozens of countries, and that China was sending millions of doses to EU neighbors, the data showed.

“We are completely out of this game,” one of the diplomats who was there told Reuters.

Reuters was unable to confirm the data accurately. But figures compiled by the United Nations agency, UNICEF, which works with COVAX on vaccine delivery, show that Russia has agreements to deliver nearly 600 million doses, including to EU countries. China has agreements to sell about 800 million doses, including agreements with European countries like Serbia, Ukraine and Albania.

Later that month, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, made the statement frankly: “The EU is the main driver of COVAX,” he wrote in a blog on March 26. diplomacy does. “

On Tuesday, the EU Commission said the EU would share more than half a million doses with the Balkan countries starting in May through the EU scheme. This happened two weeks after COVAX delivered its first injections in the region.

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