Brussels could approve Russia and China’s coronavirus vaccines if their developers ‘show transparency’, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has said as the bloc looks desperately for ways to speed up its stuttering jab rollout.
Von der Leyen told lawmakers on Tuesday that ‘if the Russian producers, the Chinese producers open their books, show transparency, show all the data… then they could get… a conditional market authorisation like the other ones’.
Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has long been viewed sceptically in the West, but Europe was warming to the jab on Tuesday after trial results published in respected medical journal The Lancet showed it was 91.6 effective.
China’s Sinopharm product was similarly not part of the EU plan until Hungary broke ranks and approved it on Friday after slamming Brussels for the slow vaccine rollout.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said last night that ‘all vaccines are welcome’ in the EU, adding that she had spoken to Vladimir Putin about the Russian-made jab.
Merkel, already under fire for allowing Brussels to take the lead in the vaccine rollout, is also facing growing criticism over the slow progress in Germany – with Europe’s richest country coming only 13th out of 27 in the bloc’s vaccination league table.
More than a month after the EU rollout began, only 2.3 per cent of the bloc’s population has received any dose at all, compared to 13.7 per cent in Britain.
EU countries are lagging far behind Britain in their vaccine rollout so far – with Britain giving out 14.42 doses per 100 people compared to 2.93 for the EU as a whole. The UK’s current daily rate is also much higher, meaning Britain’s lead does not merely reflect an earlier start date
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, pictured, has opened the door to approving Russian and Chinese vaccines which until now have largely been scorned by the West
While the EU boasts of having deals for 2.3billion doses in the bag, it has struggled to get supplies amid delays in Pfizer and AstraZeneca shipments in recent weeks.
Brussels reacted furiously after AstraZeneca said it would deliver fewer doses than planned to mainland Europe – while continuing to supply the UK in full.
But the EU’s move to impose export controls led to further humiliation for the bloc when it opened the door to checking jab shipments as they crossed the Irish border, only to swiftly abandon the idea amid an outcry from both the UK and Ireland.
Separately, Germany and France have both restricted the AstraZeneca jab to under-65s – further limiting their ability to protect the most vulnerable groups.
German regulators pointed to the small sample size of elderly patients in the Oxford/AstraZeneca trial, meaning any effectiveness figure would be meaningless.
But Britain is using the jab for all age groups, with AstraZeneca pointing to trial results showing that 100 per cent of seniors generated antibodies.
The EU has also approved the Moderna jab in addition to the Pfizer and AstraZeneca products, but the supplies so far have failed to bring about a rapid vaccine drive.
As a result, there has been growing interest in the Russian and Chinese products which until now had largely been scorned by Western countries.
Scientists voiced alarm after Moscow registered the Sputnik vaccine last summer before Phase III trials had even been completed.
But those doubts were eased on Tuesday after The Lancet published results of trials involving 20,000 volunteers showing an overall 91.6 per cent efficacy rate.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said she had spoken to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, pictured together in 2019, about the Russian-made Sputnik V jab
A vial of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine which is attracting newfound interest in the EU as it struggles to keep pace with Britain and the US
Two UK scientists, Ian Jones of the University of Reading and Polly Roy of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the results mean that ‘another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of Covid-19’.
‘The development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticised for unseemly haste, corner cutting, and an absence of transparency… but the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated,’ they said.
‘There are no arguments left for critics of this vaccine, the article in The Lancet is a checkmate,’ said Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund.
The Russian vaccine is also already registered in 16 countries including former Soviet republics as well as Russian allies such as Venezuela and Iran.
Merkel has proposed German aid for potential ‘joint production’ of the vaccine, with Brussels insisting that jabs must be made within the EU’s borders or in Britain.
Meanwhile, developers of China’s Sinopharm vaccine say it has 79.3 per cent effectiveness, and the jab is already in use in other countries including the UAE.
It has also been approved in Serbia, which is not an EU member, and now in Hungary where PM Viktor Orban said he would rather have Sinopharm than a Western jab.
‘I’m waiting for the Chinese vaccine, I trust in that the most,’ said Orban, adding that ‘the Chinese have known the virus for the longest’.
Hungary has also jumped ahead of EU regulators in approving the AstraZeneca jab, amid fury at Brussels for its poor handling of the rollout.
French president Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday defended the strategy ‘we have adopted with Germany, with the EU, which is precisely to vaccinate in Europe’.
He added that everyone who wants a vaccine in France will be offered one ‘by the end of the summer’.
A UK care home resident receives a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine last month, with Britain among the world leaders in the vaccine race so far
As well as being far behind Britain, which fully cut ties with the EU on January 1, the 27-member bloc is also moving much slower than the United States or Israel.
Admitting to some missteps, von der Leyen told French newspaper Le Monde: ‘When you take urgent decisions, and in this year of crisis we’ve taken around 900, there’s always the chance of missing something.’
In Germany, Merkel also defended the EU’s policies, saying EU regulators were right to take their time over approving the AstraZeneca jab.
Merkel has been criticised for delegating the vaccine rollout to the EU, but has insisted that ‘a virus that affects us all cannot be defeated by any country alone’.
Germany has struggled to ramp up its vaccine drive and the daily rate of inoculations has hardly increased since the middle of January, hampered by excessive bureaucracy which has also been blamed for France’s slow progress.
Merkel held a summit with state leaders, EU officials and pharmaceutical firms on Monday in a bid to speed up the vaccine drive, but it brought no concrete results.
Echoing Macron, the German chancellor said everyone would be offered a vaccine by the end of summer 2021.
But Britain’s current rate of vaccinations, with around 400,000 people getting a dose every day, would allow for every adult to have got one by around May.
The UK’s vaccine strategy received a further boost on Tuesday with new findings by Oxford University that its vaccine is effective after only one dose.
Britain switched strategies in late December to give as many people as possible a first dose of the vaccine, delaying the second doses for up to 12 weeks.
Oxford researchers found that once the vaccine has had three weeks to take effect, it remains 76 per cent effective throughout this three-month period.
Prof Andrew Pollard, the chief investigator of the Oxford vaccine trial, said the findings ‘support the policy recommendation’ made by UK health officials.
In addition, the latest Oxford study said there were promising signs that the vaccine can cut transmission of the disease as well as preventing illness in those infected.
Swabs taken from volunteers in the UK suggested that transmission could be reduced by as much as 67 per cent, the Oxford researchers said.
Health experts are also looking to Israel, which is leading the global vaccine race, in order to study real-world data on the effects of the various jabs.
Preliminary data published last week showed that only 20 people out of 128,600 who received two doses of the Pfizer jab had so far been infected with the Covid-19 virus.