(by Francesco Bascone – former Ambassador to Belgrade, Nicosia and Vienna / Osce)
VIENNA. Throughout Europe, not only in Italy, the pressures of economic circles to relax restrictions are opposed to the warnings of doctors and scientists, and generate dissension between central and regional authorities, between health ministers and right-wing parties.
Faced with the intolerance of a part of the population, which also leads to street demonstrations, there is a strong temptation to loosen the reins, only to tighten them again when the data on hospital admissions become worrying. Such a stop-and-go strategy would perhaps be sustainable if there were no variants: those already known and others that will surely develop.
To get out of the dilemma, policymakers promise to speed up vaccination programs. But if at first the problem was of an organizational nature (it would be necessary to administer half a million doses per day, in the case of a population of 60 million, to immunize three quarters in six months), today it concerns the supply. There is simply a lack of global manufacturing capacity to protect seven billion people. And if the virus, under control in some rich countries, spreads to the rest of the world, the probability of more aggressive mutations statistically increases.
The limits of the EU
This bottleneck has political repercussions on an international level. First of all it fuels the controversy against the European Union, which was unable to grab substantial supplies in the first few months, unlike the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel. Some errors, or slowness, can certainly be attributed to the Commission. But it must be considered that it negotiated on behalf of 27 countries, not all of them rich, and will have to answer for any inflated prices. It is not difficult to imagine the potential populist campaigns against the Eurocrats “accomplices of Big Pharma”.
More deserved would be the reproach of not having thought since last summer to encourage the creation of new production capacities with a specific program (such as Sure, the scheme to support employment), and not having negotiated with the companies that were developing vaccines the sale of licenses at reasonable prices for the quantities they are unable to produce. Except that health is not yet within the competence of the EU. The criticism must therefore be directed primarily to the member countries, or at least to those that have pharmaceutical industries, such as ours.
The success of the Sputnik V
Another geopolitical repercussion is the great prestige success achieved by Russia with its Sputnik V, since the Lancet magazine consecrated its effectiveness. Just think of the impact on Italian public opinion with the supply of several thousand doses to San Marino, which has the “good fortune” of not being tied to the EU wagon. Moscow has cleverly exploited its vaccine for international flu by offering it to about thirty countries (including some EU countries: Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic). In reality, Moscow is unable to meet the needs of those customers, or even the domestic one: in January the vaccination rate was similar to that of the EU, about a quarter of that of the US and UK.
However, it can sell the license at competitive prices and assist buyers in setting up and equipping the production facilities if necessary. It thus performs the useful function of breaking the oligopoly of the large Western pharmaceutical companies and controlling prices.
It is in this context that the heterodox initiative of the Austrian Chancellor to declare the purchasing monopoly entrusted to the EU Commission to be “non-taboo”, and to turn to Moscow (without excluding Beijing). In a phone call to Vladimir Putin on February 26, Sebastian Kurz showed interest in Russian vaccine supplies, but – unlike Hungary and Slovakia – only after approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which has not yet been approved. request. Given the limited production capacity, the interlocutor moved the discussion on manufacturing to Austria. The topic was then explored three days later in an interview between the Russian ambassador in Vienna and close collaborators of Kurz. Contacts are said to be in progress with two Austrian pharmaceutical companies.
Domestic policy developments in Vienna
Austria is one of the countries where the partial lockdown of the past four months (including bars, restaurants and hotels, unlike Italy) has been effective in reducing infections between November and January, but has not prevented a rebound when the effect of the so-called “English” variant is manifested. This went from 30 to 60% of cases in one month (66% in Vienna).
In February, the incidence rate rose from 100 to 160 cases per week per 100 thousand inhabitants (in Germany it is 65, and it is considered essential to go down at least below 50). Yet, the aperturist movement is strengthening, also supported by Norbert Hofer’s right-wing party FPÖ. Its former leader Heinz-Christian Strache, expelled following the “Ibiza” scandal, has even participated in protests.
Always with a view to diversification, and in the awareness that Covid will not disappear within a year, as the World Health Organization has warned, Chancellor Kurz has agreed with his Danish colleague Mette Frederiksen to visit Jerusalem: a another confirmation of the dissatisfaction with the community management of vaccines. Kurz does not openly contest the choice of collective purchases, but he no longer accepts its exclusivity, and explicitly criticizes the slowness of the EMA. The collaboration with Israel aims above all to develop and produce “second generation” vaccines and medicines to cope with the new variants that will arise in the coming years.
(This post has already appeared on the International Affairs website)