In an interview, Thierry Breton, 66, the EU’s internal market commissioner discusses criticism of Brussels’ vaccine procurement efforts, the dispute over AstraZeneca and his belief that Europe will have enough doses available by this summer to make herd immunity possible.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Breton, since February, you have headed a task force that has been asked to eliminate bottlenecks in vaccine production. Why wasn’t that task force created back in the summer of 2020, when it was clear that mass production was about to start?
Breton: We have to be honest: Last summer, the infection numbers dropped precipitously after the first lockdown, and everyone was talking about an economic crisis with a quick recovery. We had hoped that everything could come back to normality after the summer.
DER SPIEGEL: But that didn’t stop the United States and Britain from investing heavily in vaccine development and in production capacity, especially, as early as spring of 2020. Now both are much further ahead with vaccinations than the EU.
Breton: We have produced and delivered about 180 million doses of vaccine in the EU so far – about as much as the U.S. The only difference is that, unlike the U.S. and the UK, we are also supplying other countries. Then there was the problem that AstraZeneca has so far only supplied us with about a quarter of the agreed quantity of vaccine. If it had treated us the same way it treated Britain, we would be in exactly the same place with vaccinations today as the British.
DER SPIEGEL: You have made clear that AstraZeneca will not be allowed to export any more vaccines from Europe as long as the company does not fulfill its obligations to the EU. What does that mean for the UK?
Breton: Our friends from the UK have two vaccine factories, but only one of them is producing. Of the 37 million doses administered in the UK to date, this production facility has supplied at most one-third. The rest came mainly from Europe. In other words: The UK is largely dependent on the EU for its vaccination campaign.
DER SPIEGEL: And the EU is now taking advantage of that?
Breton: Not at all. The EU is the only region that is providing generous support with vaccines for other countries. We are using 60 percent of our production for our own needs and the rest is going abroad. The U.S., on the other hand, has blocked all exports. If the EU didn’t deliver, some countries would be left almost empty-handed.
DER SPIEGEL: The UK, for example.
Breton: We certainly understand the problems the British have. They had many infections during the first wave of the pandemic and suffered almost 130,000 deaths, more than any EU country. Also, even though they have given many of their people a first shot, few have been provided with a second one yet. Now they need a second shot and for that, deliveries from the EU.
DER SPIEGEL: The British claim that they simply have better contractual provisions guaranteeing the delivery of their supplies than the EU does. Is that true?
Breton: The contracts are largely identical. All we are asking is that AstraZeneca deliver what we were promised. No more and no less.
DER SPIEGEL: If necessary, will you enforce that with an export ban?
Breton: We are not saying that we will ban this. We are saying that we want to get what we are contractually entitled to. Whatever the company produces beyond that, it can deliver where it wants.
DER SPIEGEL: Many people in Europe are warning against export restrictions. They fear that the countries in question will then stop supplying Europe with enough quantities of the raw materials needed to produce vaccines.
Breton: That’s not going to happen. In the UK, for example, there is only one small factory supplying carrier fluids for mRNA vaccines to the Continent, and it will do so until the end of April, when the contract expires. That is the only dependency there is. It doesn’t worry us.
DER SPIEGEL: There are also disagreements within the EU. For example, Austria feels badly treated by the vaccine-distribution process in the EU and now wants to order Sputnik V, the Russian vaccine. How do you feel about that?
Breton: I am convinced that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will examine Sputnik V and evaluate it correctly. But an approval would not mean that the vaccine can be produced in sufficient quantities. It normally takes many months to build up and ramp up the corresponding production. It is simply too late to use Sputnik V for our goal of having all Europeans vaccinated by the summer.
DER SPIEGEL: What are the EU’s chances of still achieving that goal?
Breton: We’re on track, we can do this. There are now 53 factories producing vaccines in 12 EU countries, and their output is increasing massively. In January, we shipped 14 million doses in the EU. The rate of production is increasing rapidly, and from April, we are expecting around 100 million doses a month. By mid-July, around 420 million doses will have been delivered. That is enough to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult EU population and achieve herd immunity – provided, of course, that these doses are injected. That’s why the member states need to be organizing mass vaccination campaigns and convincing people to get vaccinated right now