German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the European Union must prepare to vaccinate for new coronavirus variants over the coming years after EU leaders discussed ways to fight new variants of the virus, step up inoculations and save Europe’s tourism industry from another ruinous summer.
The 27 EU leaders agreed on Thursday to keep “tight restrictions” on public life and free movement in place as the bloc races against the emergence of new variants that may hamper an economic rebound.
“We have to prepare for a situation where we have to continuously vaccinate for a longer period of time, maybe over years, due to new coronavirus variants, akin to the situation we know from the flu,” Merkel said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the EU “will have to live with this virus” over the long term.
Italy’s new prime minister, former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, called for a much tougher stance from the EU towards pharmaceutical companies producing the vaccines after a stuttering start to deliveries of jabs.
The executive European Commission told the virtual leaders’ gathering that 51.5 million doses of vaccines had so far been delivered to the EU and 29.17 million administered, with about 5 percent of citizens having had their first dose.
The Commission and EU countries have come under fire for missteps in their joint inoculation programme and a stuttering roll-out of shots that has lagged badly behind Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Summit chairman Charles Michel said the bloc wanted “more predictability and transparency” from pharmaceutical companies that failed to deliver contracted vaccine volumes, putting at risk the EU’s target of inoculating 70 percent of its adult population by mid-to-late 2021.
Not far from where European Council President Charles Michel chaired the video summit from Brussels, EU legislators grilled the heads of the big pharmaceutical companies.
AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot fielded many questions from the European Parliament, especially after he confirmed that the company would deliver fewer than half the vaccines it had committed to in the first quarter.
Reporting from Berlin, Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane reporting from Berlin said that the legislators did not appear satisfied with Soriot’s answers.
“He was asked repeatedly by several different members of the parliament, hostile questions about how it was that certain elements of the vaccine that his company has been producing could be produced in the EU and made available in the UK but not vice versa,” Kane said.
“His answers were not particularly forthcoming, at least not to the satisfaction of the members of the European Parliament. What this does is reinforce the element of questioning that there is right now, not just in Germany but around the EU, at the speed with which vaccines are being administered. And also the question of whether that speed can be quickened, can more people be vaccinated more quickly than is currently happening?”
After the pandemic killed more than 900,000 people in Europe and thrust it into its worst-ever recession, EU leaders agreed to advance work on vaccine certificates, which southern countries hope will unlock tourism during the European summer.
But others, including France and Germany, are sceptical. Merkel said technical work on that should be completed by the summer.
As the EU treads a fine line between restrictions to stop the spread of infections and keeping borders open to ensure the smooth flow of goods and services across the single market, Merkel said she did not expect to impose tighter border restrictions on the French Moselle region for now.
Although infection rates are heading down in about 20 EU member states, there are concerns about fresh spikes as the coronavirus variant first detected in the UK spreads rapidly.
The head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the British variant was present in 26 of the EU’s 27 countries, the South African variant in 14 and Brazilian in seven nations.
“There is growing COVID fatigue among our citizens … But we should not let up now. Not only does the situation remain serious in many parts of Europe, but we must also watch for the new variants that are spreading,” she said.