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EU leader admits to COVID vaccine program mistakes amid outcry over delays and shortages

U.K. meets halfway goal in vaccine rollout
U.K. meets halfway goal in vaccine rollout 01:54

Berlin — European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has admitted to mistakes by the bloc's leadership in the fight against the coronavirus, and specifically failures in the procurement of vaccines. She promised more transparency going forward, but with thousands of people across the 27-nation bloc clambering for shots as new COVID-19 variants spread, the promise struck some EU lawmakers as too little, too late. 

In Germany, the EU's largest economy, just over 2.4 million people have had at least their first vaccine shot. Appointments are difficult to schedule as many vaccination centers have no supplies. With more vaccines from different manufacturers being approved in the country, lawmakers hope to be able to offer vaccination to all adults by the end of the summer. 

But compared to other nations like the U.S. or U.K., with only 2.9% of its population at least partially inoculated thus far, Germany, like many of its EU neighbors, has been left far behind.

"We were late in getting approval, we were too optimistic about mass production, and perhaps we were too sure that the orders would be delivered on time," von der Leyen admitted to the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday. But she said it was right to regulate the ordering of vaccines across the EU, rather than letting individual member states negotiate their own deals.

EU Commission President von der Leyen debates COVID-19 vaccination strategy in Brussels
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen debates the state of the EU's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination strategy, at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, February 10, 2021. JOHANNA GERON/REUTERS

If a few large member states had gone it alone, it would have had unforeseeable consequences for the EU's internal market, she argued, and would have been "the end of our community."

After harsh criticism of European vaccine procurement, von der Leyen said the pharmaceutical industry had simply not been able to keep up with the "groundbreaking pace" of vaccine development. Her agency has since set up a working group to prevent further production problems, due, for example, to shortages in the supply of ingredients.

COVID vaccine causes tensions in Europe 02:20

The EU Commission will also present a plan next week to prepare specifically for the threat posed by viral mutations. EU regulations would have to be adapted, and more targeted coronavirus tests, including more genetic sequencing to identify and monitor variants, would also be needed.  

Von der Leyen also sought to highlight successes. Some 26 million vaccine doses have been delivered so far across the 27-nation bloc, and more than 17 million people in Europe have been vaccinated. She set the goal of vaccinating 70% of the adult population in Europe by the end of the summer.

Opposition politicians weren't satisfied by the pledges and called for further clarification. Liberal lawmakers in the European Parliament have called for a committee to investigate lapses in the EU's vaccination strategy. Chairwoman of the European Left party, Manon Aubry, said the EU Commission must be held accountable and called for the committee to be created immediately.

Other parliamentary groups have issued separate calls for an investigation into the Commission's handling of vaccine procurement, but the majority of the political groups within the European Parliament have voiced support for the Commission President's strategy of a common EU approach.   

Still, lawmakers were quick to note that the delays in delivery have caused mistrust among the population in their countries. 

Some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) criticized the lack of transparency in negotiations with vaccine manufacturers. 

Amid the harsh criticism, von der Leyen made two further commitments to the lawmakers. She vowed to do everything she could to enable MEPs to examine supply contracts, and said she would set up a contact group with the Parliament to facilitate a better exchange of information.

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