Austria and Denmark plan vaccines with Israel to bolster slow EU supply

Two countries want to stop relying solely on bloc for supplies and work with Israel for new vaccines against variants

FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker hands over doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a doctor at Messe Wien Congress Center, which has been set up as coronavirus disease vaccination centre, in Vienna, Austria February 7, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo
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Austria and Denmark have further dented the EU’s fragile coronavirus vaccine solidarity by announcing plans to team up with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines against Covid-19 variants.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz plans to visit Israel with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen this week and confer with leader Benjamin Netanyahu on vaccine research and production.

Mr Kurz said on Tuesday that his country and Denmark intend to stop relying solely on the EU for coronavirus vaccines.

As part of its strategy, the EU has six contracts for more than 2 billion doses of vaccines with AstraZeneca, Moderna, Sanofi-GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech and CureVac.

It is in talks with two other makers but only three vaccines have been approved for use in the bloc so far.

Amid delays in production and delivery of shots, the introduction of vaccines to the EU’s 27 member states is lagging far behind that of Israel and some other countries, including the US and Britain.

The EU said almost 33 million doses of vaccine have been given so far, but only 11 million Europeans have been fully inoculated.

Israel, a country of 9.3 million people, has immunised more than half of its population since late December.

Mr Kurz told the Austria Press Agency that it was right in principle to take a European-wide approach to inoculations.

But he said the European Medicines Agency had been too slow to approve vaccines and there had been shortfalls in deliveries.

“We must prepare for further mutations and should no longer be dependent solely on the EU in the production of second-generation vaccines,” Mr Kurz said.

He said Austria and Denmark “will no longer rely on the EU … and will in the coming years produce doses of second-generation vaccine for further mutations of the coronavirus together with Israel, as well as researching jointly treatment possibilities".

EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said all member states still wanted to continue to be part of the bloc's vaccine strategy.

“The point is that none of the member states has signalled in any way that they want to receive less doses based on our EU vaccine strategy,” he said.

“What certain member states are looking at is how to prepare the future.

"We will continue with our vaccine strategy exactly as before and continue to adapt as the situation evolves.”

Mr Mamer said that with 27 member countries and a population of 450 million, the EU faced a much bigger challenge than Israel.

“It’s not as if you can take one model and simply stick it on the European Union and say, 'that’s what you should be doing',” he said.

Mr Mamer said each country was in charge of its own vaccine distribution.

Ms Frederiksen said she did not consider the plan to join forces with Israel to be in breach of European co-operation.

“I think we are best off being in European co-operation in the field of vaccines as well,” she said.

The EU secured vaccine doses for its member states collectively but its members can also decide to negotiate separate agreements as long as they do not compete with the advance purchase agreement sealed by the EU’s executive arm.

Several member states have openly criticised the EU for the slow introduction and considered using vaccines developed in China and Russia, although they have not been approved by the European Medicines Agency.

On Sunday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had a shot of the vaccine from Sinopharm, after recently saying he trusted the Chinese vaccine the most.

In a Twitter post, Mr Kurz praised EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for her role in securing vaccine doses for the whole bloc.

“But now we must prepare ourselves in time for further dangerous Covid-19 mutations,” he wrote.

Mr Kurz added that experts expected annual vaccinations for about six million Austrians.