In vaccine-hungry, cash-rich Europe, the hunt for more doses has nations trading with each other, weighing purchases from Russia and China and fielding offers from middlemen ranging from real to outright frauds.
Amid building anger over a sluggish European Union coronavirus vaccine rollout that has left them far behind several other wealthy countries, many EU states are looking beyond the bloc’s joint purchasing strategy, which now seems woefully underwhelming.
An immense black – or at least grey – market has arisen, with pitches from around the world at often exorbitant prices.
Sellers have approached EU governments claiming to offer 460 million doses of vaccines, according to the early results of an investigation by the bloc’s anti-fraud agency that were shared with The New York Times.
While they still plan to get vaccines from the bloc, some nations are also trying to negotiate directly with drugmakers and eyeing the murky open market where they are still unsure of the sellers and the products.
Some have also agreed to swap vaccines with each other, deals that some of them now have reason to regret.
In 2020, the EU was slow to make massive advance purchases from drug companies, acting weeks after the US, Britain and a handful of other countries.
This year, the bloc was blindsided by slower-than-expected vaccine production, and individual countries have fumbled the rollout.
About 5 per cent of the EU’s nearly 450 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, versus almost 14 per cent in the US, 27 per cent in Britain and 53 per cent in Israel as of earlier this week, according to Our World in Data database and governments.
The stumbles by the world’s richest bloc of nations have turned vaccine politics toxic.
Particularly galling to many Europeans is the sight of a former EU member, Britain, forging ahead with its vaccination and reopening plans while EU societies remain under lockdown amid a new surge of dangerous variants, their economies sinking deeper into recession.
In the final months of 2020, several countries opted to forgo parts of their population-based shares of EU-purchased vaccines.
Much of that trade involved less affluent countries, with less infrastructure and hard-to-reach populations, selling their shares of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna that require ultra-cold storage and instead making the cheaper AstraZeneca vaccine, which is easier to handle, the centrepiece of their vaccination campaigns.
But then AstraZeneca, whose vaccine was developed with the University of Oxford, slashed its expected EU deliveries because of production problems.
And despite experts’ assurances, many Europeans expressed doubts about it after some leaders questioned its efficacy in older age groups, which were not well represented in clinical trials. (Pfizer also suffered a supply slowdown.)
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A decision by any country to let go of doses is potential political dynamite, and the recriminations have begun.
Poland gave up a chunk of its expensive Moderna quota expected late this year, reasoning that it would not come soon enough to make much difference, considering they were anticipating ample deliveries of AstraZeneca and potentially the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by that point.
“I would never give up on buying what is safe and efficient,” said Andrzej Halicki, a Polish member of the European Parliament.
“As a former minister, I can tell you that in my view, this is criminal action. This is a breach of obligations.”
A German official said the country had secured 50 million Moderna vaccine doses, a significantly larger number than it would get under its population-based allocation of the EU supply.
EU officials confirmed that Germany had obtained at least some extra doses from other member states.
Germany also secured a controversial side deal with Pfizer-BioNTech for an extra 30 million doses to be delivered later in 2021, sparking anger in parts of the EU, as the move was seen as the richest EU nation leading the bloc to a collective strategy and then hedging by also going at it alone.
The bloc’s fear is that such side deals could undermine its collective purchasing power and override delivery schedules to all 27 countries.
The European Commission has made it clear that EU countries should not be cutting separate deals with the same pharmaceutical companies that it has negotiated contracts with for the whole bloc.
In a troubling turn, senior government officials and even heads of government have received dozens of unsolicited offers for vaccines.
Few of the sellers appear to be legitimate operators, said Ville Itala, director-general of the European Anti-Fraud office, known as OLAF.
“They are offering vaccines – quite huge amounts; so far it’s 460 million doses, which is around three billion euros,” he said in an interview this week. “So it’s not a small business, it’s a huge business, and this is growing all the time.”
Mr Itala said he was taking the unusual step of going public with the information, little over a week into his agency’s investigation, because the potential risks to Europeans are huge.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said last week: “I think in a crisis like this, you’ll always have people who seek to benefit or profit from the problems of others, and we see a growing number of frauds and fraud attempts.”
But with offers piling in, officials say they are prepared to examine each one carefully before rejecting it.
Most of the middlemen claim to be selling the AstraZeneca shot, Mr Itala said.
The company said it only does deals with governments or multilateral organisations, such as through the Covax vaccine-sharing initiative. But that does not rule out the possibility of countries quietly reselling them to third parties.
“AstraZeneca has not authorised any shipments of the vaccine outside of the existing contract with the European Union,” a company spokesperson said.
“There should be no private-sector supply for sale or distribution of the vaccine in Europe.”
While many of the offers are clearly fraudulent, others may be legitimate, officials say, even if the prices quoted are astronomical.
–New York Times