Ursula von der Leyen: EU must introduce vaccine passports before Google and Apple step in

European Commission president fears big tech companies are in talks with the WHO to provide certificates

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said vaccine passports must be implemented across the continent before giant technology companies Apple and Google step in to the vacuum.

The EU’s 27 member states supported vaccine certificates in principle but could not agree on the privileges granted to people inoculated against Covid-19.

The bloc’s leaders met on Thursday to discuss a return to normality after its population is vaccinated.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said vaccine certificates were needed to reopen the economy.

“In the future, it will certainly be good to have such a certificate but that will not mean that only those who have such a passport will be able to travel. About that, no political decisions have been made yet,” she said.

Europe’s leaders are facing criticism for a vaccination programme that lags behind the US and UK, and the prospect of a third wave of infections leading to more lockdowns.

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank president, called for a resolute and pragmatic strategy to accelerate the bloc’s inoculation campaign, and suggested a tougher approach to companies that do not respect delivery commitments.

Ms von der Leyen urged the group to move fast because US tech companies were already discussing an alternative with the World Health Organisation.

“It is important to have a European solution because otherwise others will go into this vacuum,” she said. “Google and Apple are already offering solutions to the WHO and this is sensitive information, so we want to be very clear here that we offer a European solution.”

A source familiar with Apple’s position said Ms von der Leyen misunderstood the situation and that Apple had not discussed a possible vaccine application with the WHO or the EU.

"If we don't provide a solution, somebody else will ... whether it's going to be the US big tech companies or somebody else, the solution will be provided," Alex Patelis, chief economic adviser to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, told Bloomberg. "Let's get the infrastructure ready."

Countries such as Germany and Belgium came under fire from the EC for closing borders to keep the virus under control.

A health worker holds a bottle of the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 during a mass vaccination campaign by SUMMA 112 (Medical Emergency Services of Madrid) at the Wanda Metropolitan stadium in Madrid on February 25, 2021. So far, some 1.2 million people have been vaccinated in Spain since the start of the immunisation campaign which began just after Christmas with care home residents first in line along with their carers.  / AFP / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU

Some of the bloc’s economies, especially those reliant on tourism, are keen to open their doors to vaccinated people as soon as possible. Other nations, however, are resisting the opening of borders, citing a lack of evidence that vaccination halts transmission, as well as concerns over granting certain citizens special privileges.

Macron’s concerns

French President Emmanuel Macron voiced concerns about the duration of immunity and the infection risk of those who have been vaccinated, as well as legal and ethical issues regarding the protection of personal data.

“We’ll have, in the end, a harmonious EU approach,” he said. “It’s obvious because there is no other choice.”

The summit came after AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot spoke to the European Parliament and sought to deflect blame for a shortfall in Covid-19 vaccine deliveries to the EU.

Mr Soriot said his company would deliver 40 million doses in the first quarter, with the volume to rise in coming months. He said AstraZeneca employees were working around the clock to increase production, but perfecting the process takes time.

“Typically in our industry, we have years to refine the process,” he said. “Here, we didn’t have that time, we didn’t have that luxury. We had six months.”

Rising infections

Ms von der Leyen said vaccine supply would soon be addressed. A graphic was shown to EU leaders demonstrating that availability will be sufficient to vaccinate the bulk of the bloc’s population by the end of September. Mr Draghi was not convinced, according to an official, saying deliveries in the second and third quarters of 2021 could not be predicted.

Concerns over distribution are exacerbated by rising numbers of infections. Paris is among 20 French areas potentially facing tougher Covid-19 restrictions, Prime Minister Jean Castex said.

The government asked health authorities to monitor the situation in the capital and beyond as France seeks to avoid a third nationwide lockdown, Mr Castex said.

The country has recorded an average of about 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day since December, with occupancy of intensive care beds rising, while concerns are mounting over the country’s increasingly pronounced regional variation.

“A lockdown is a tool that we have to resort to when we can’t do anything else,” Mr Castex said. “We must do everything to put it off and allow the vaccines time to have an effect.”

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