The European Union was too late to approve COVID-19 vaccines and overly optimistic regarding production, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged, as she faces mounting criticism over vaccination drives on the continent.
Addressing politicians in the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, von der Leyen said 26 million vaccine doses had been delivered and that by the end of the summer, 70 percent of adults in the 27-nation bloc should have been inoculated.
The EU has so far approved three vaccines – those produced by BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca, but roll-outs have been hampered by delivery delays, production bottlenecks and political blunders.
That has led to criticism from frustrated politicians and citizens across the bloc, especially as vaccination rates fall behind the US, UK, Israel, and other wealthy countries.
“It is a fact that we are not today where we want to be in the fight against the virus,” von der Leyen said.
“We were late with the approval. We were too optimistic on mass production. And perhaps we were also too certain that the orders would actually be delivered on time,” she said. “In a way, science surpassed industry.”
‘A marathon not a sprint’
Von der Leyen also admitted mistakes made in a bitter row last month over vaccines between the EU and the UK.
The bloc had intended to use emergency Brexit measures to restrict shipments of COVID-19 vaccines from crossing the Irish border into the UK but eventually retired the plan after it sent shockwaves through Northern Ireland, London and Dublin.
“I deeply regret that,” she said, adding that the European Commission would do its utmost to protect peace in Northern Ireland.
Avoiding a border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, a constituent part of ex-EU member the United Kingdom, is seen as key to protecting the peace process there.
Von der Leyen added that the health crisis has demonstrated there were lessons to be learned.
Clinics in the continent should share more data, regulations to allow the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to move faster in authorising vaccines should be improved, and industrial bottlenecks that impede vaccine production should be addressed, she said.
The EU will launch clinical trials to give regulators data more promptly and the Commission will create a task force to help boost vaccine production, she said.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said von der Leyen’s comments were an attempt to “put across her point of view” after facing “a lot of personal criticism” over the EU’s vaccine strategy.
“It is worth noting that only three percent of adults in the EU have been vaccinated so far,” Butler said. “[Von der Leyen] repeated her assertion that managing a pandemic like this is a ‘marathon, not a sprint’.”
Defending her position, von der Leyen claimed the EU was right in choosing conditional market authorisation over emergency approval for vaccines, saying the bloc could not have cut corners in its regulatory checks, even if this led to weeks-long delays.
“There can be no compromise when it comes to injecting a biologically active substance into a healthy person,” she said, adding the move was essential in instilling public confidence in the vaccines approved by the EMA.
Europe has been badly hit by the COVID-19 crisis, with nearly 20 million cases recorded in the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) since the pandemic began, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The death toll across the EU and EEA is rapidly approaching 475,000 people.