Welcome to POLITICO’s new Global Public Health Spotlight — an extension of the Global Translations newsletter. Each week we track major issues facing the globe. Sign up here.
The European Union wants to be the world’s Covid-19 pandemic superpower, but health activists say its actions haven’t yet matched its grand promises.
The European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — claims credit for raising around $18.9 billion since May to help fund Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and tests. It has enlisted celebrities like actor Hugh Jackman, comedian Chris Rock and pop stars Justin Bieber and Shakira, to promote its belief that access to coronavirus care is a global public good, even claiming in a June strategy paper that “the EU will only be safe if the rest of the world is safe.”
In casting itself as a global savior, the EU is drawing a sharp contrast with the United States, which drew international condemnation after announcing its withdrawal from the World Health Organization in June. But seven months after the world first learned about Covid-19, the EU has few concrete results to show for all its talk.
Manuel Martin, a Doctors Without Borders policy adviser, said the EU’s actions “don’t match up” with its words, as European national governments pursue “a bilateral race to get access to vaccines,” rather than a collective strategy to ensure everyone wins speedy and affordable access.
A European Commission spokesperson told POLITICO that while the organization is looking into setting up “an inclusive international buyers’ group,” that plan can only work if a “significant number of countries” agree to pool resources for jointly reserving future vaccines from manufacturers, while at the same time making advance reservations for low- and middle-income countries.
The governments have yet to agree, and even if they do, the scheme could end up duplicating the work of other international organizations.
COVAX, a scheme run by the international vaccine alliance GAVI and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), already has the support of eight EU governments, and there are concerns those countries could end up negotiating twice for the same vaccines.
COVAX is attempting to spur a vaccine market via up-front investments by rich countries, which would allow lower income countries to ride on their coattails, and its work is more advanced than the Commission’s.
But a recent Reuters report suggested EU officials think they can strike better price deals with drug companies than COVAX. Complicating matters further: GAVI and CEPI have been involved in the Commission’s efforts to raise money for vaccines. The Commission refused to comment on the COVAX tensions: “We do not comment on leaks or speculate on ongoing negotiations,” the spokesperson said.
The EU’s efforts are complementary, not in competition with COVAX, which the EU supports, he added.
GAVI CEO Seth Berkley argues that COVAX is “the only way we can ensure that doses of Covid-19 vaccines don’t get cornered by a small number of countries.” Martin, of Doctors Without Borders, worries that high-income countries may end up joining the EU initiative and ditching COVAX. “There is a risk of the whole [COVAX] facility potentially falling apart,” he said.
Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy signed a deal with AstraZeneca in mid-June for 400 million doses of the vaccine it is developing with Oxford University. The four-country alliance later merged its vaccine procurement activities with those of the Commission, which is negotiating deals with vaccine makers on behalf of all 27 EU countries. The Commission said in July it had made a deal with Sanofi and GSK, which are jointly developing a vaccine, to get 300 million doses if it proves effective.
The World Health Organization, which was also involved in the fundraising organized by the Commission, “welcomes the EU’s strong and consistently voiced commitment to the equitable allocation of Covid-19 vaccines,” Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the director general, told POLITICO. “WHO is working with CEPI and GAVI through the COVAX Vaccines Facility to develop mechanisms by which the EU could ensure their commitment can translate into enhanced and appropriate quantities of vaccine for the facility,” he added.
Silence on tests, therapies and health systems
The EU is also claiming to have helped raise $1.3 billion in pledges toward better testing and treatment, alongside $5 billion for strengthening health systems.
In reality, the EU appears to be more of a donation match-maker among those willing to give money and those needing it, and washes its hands of responsibility when it comes to donors following up on their pledges. While taking credit for the funds raised at the celebrity-studded June fundraiser with Global Citizen, a New York-headquartered anti-poverty movement, the Commission plays no role in collecting, verifying and delivering pledges. Global Citizen was left to play that role, the Commission acknowledged.
Cecile Vernant, who leads the Brussels office of DSW, a global development non-governmental organization, said the Commission’s “political commitment” remains important and that it may be too early to judge the results. “But as always, it’s all in the details.”
COVID VACCINE RACE LATEST
By the numbers — 938: That’s the number of medicines, vaccines and tests that are now under development to combat the novel coronavirus, according to Policy Cures Research, a global health think tank. Of those, 411 are diagnostics, 334 are therapies and 193 are vaccines.
Canada’s top doctor: Vaccine no ‘silver bullet,’ return to normal could be years away. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told reporters she was pandemic planning “for the longer term of the next two to three years.” Meanwhile, her country announced deals this week with Pfizer and Moderna for the vaccines they are developing. On the hunt for its own stash of shots, the North American country also wants to champion access for poorer countries.
U.S. lacks plan for getting vaccine to communities of color devastated by virus: Down in the U.S., communities of color are often more skeptical of government health outreach and, as with many aspects of the pandemic, there’s no national plan in the United States to change that.
Indian vaccine maker to produce two Western-developed vaccines: India’s Serum Institute, which is the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, by the number of doses sold, has signed a deal with the U.S-based Novavax biotech to develop and sell its vaccine in low and middle income countries. The Institute already has a similar agreement with AstraZeneca for the vaccine the drugmaker is developing with Oxford University and has received approval to start clinical trials of that vaccine in India this month. GAVI and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced they would provide capital to the Institute so it can scale up the manufacturing of the two vaccines if they get licensed. The aim is to provide low and middle income countries with up to 100 million doses in 2021, at a maximum price of $3 per dose.
GLOBAL HEALTH SNAPSHOTS
Americas: Trump issues ‘Buy American’ executive order for essential drugs. The order calls on federal agencies to purchase “essential drugs” and medical supplies made in the U.S., rather than from overseas companies who now provide the bulk of those materials.
Latin America now has the world’s highest coronavirus death toll, with approximately a third of the global number of deaths. Brazil is the most affected, followed by Mexico.
Asia: Manila returns to lockdown. The move comes amid tensions between Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and health care workers. The country now has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections in East Asia.
Australia: Australia’s Victoria state imposed hefty fines to compel Covid-19 isolation. But masks are still voluntary.
Europe: Nearly 1.5 million people in Italy have probably developed coronavirus antibodies, according to a nationwide study. The country’s government overruled recommendations from its scientific advisers for a softer lockdown, according to newly published documents.
Africa: The continent hit one million confirmed cases, but the real spread of the virus is unknown, due to a lack of testing.
‘The Biggest Monster’ is spreading. And it’s not the coronavirus, it’s tuberculosis.