Austria and Denmark break with EU vaccination strategy and ally with Israel

Tel Aviv boasts of good results of mass vaccination, which confirm the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine

4 min
An ultra-Orthodox Jew receives a dose of Pfizer-BioNtech coronavirus vaccine (COVID-19) in the Israeli town of Bnei Brak

London / BarcelonaCracks at the heart of the European Union (EU) over the immunisation campaign continue. Non-compliance and delays in the arrival of vaccines made by the different pharmaceutical companies are taking their toll on the always difficult unity of action of the 27. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced on Tuesday via his Twitter account that his country and Denmark will establish a partnership with Israel to "work closely on research and production of vaccines". Kurz and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen are scheduled to visit Israel on Thursday to discuss "an international corporation for the manufacture of vaccines," according to Reuters.

The decision of the Austrian and Danish heads of government is a new blow to the EU's vaccination strategy, already under scrutiny. The announcement, in fact, came shortly after Poland ordered vaccines from China on Monday and Slovakia also purchased two million doses of Russian Sputnik V. In addition, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has also assured that he would not wait for the EU regulator before buying the Sputnik V. Moreover, a day earlier, on Sunday 28 February, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán received his first injection, in this case of the vaccine produced by the Chinese company Sinopharm.

So far, the European Medicines Agency has only approved three vaccines: Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. However, it is expected to give the go-ahead for the single-dose vaccine from Janssen/Johnson & Johnson at next Thursday's meeting of the Committee for Human Medicinal Products. In any case, the optimistic plan envisaged by Brussels - and also by the Spanish government - of having 70% of the adult population vaccinated by summer is no longer simply at risk; it has become practically impossible to achieve.

Although Kurz has praised the European Commission's initiative for the pooled purchase of vaccines that was agreed last year, he has also assured that "we have to prepare for other dangerous mutations" and do it "with time", words that have to be read as open criticism of the slowness with which the EU has deployed the whole process. He also said in a statement: "We would no longer have to rely on the EU alone for the production of second-generation vaccines".

On the other hand, the Danish prime minister said on Monday that she did not believe that the EU could be relied on as the only way to supply vaccines, "because we need to increase the capacity" of production. "That is why we are now fortunate enough to start a partnership with Israel" to make this possible, she told local journalists. "The initiative can be described as unilateral", Mette Frederiksen admitted.

This Tuesday, however, Brussels has again defended the joint procurement and wanted to downplay the importance of the government moves in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, without assessing, however, the announcement made by Austria and Denmark. "It is not that the strategy has been undone," said Commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker, but that member states have "the right" to seal their agreements with producers beyond those that the Commission signs.

Israel, world leader in vaccination

In the midst of a strong political crisis - Israel will hold elections on 23 March, the fourth in two years - Benjamin Netanhayu's government set itself the primary objective of leading the vaccination process in the world. It bought vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech at a high price and reached an agreement with the pharmaceutical company to provide it with data on the vaccinated population. The result is that more than eight million doses have already been administered in the country and that 38% of the population is already immunised with the two shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. In Spain, only 4% of the population has received the two doses of the vaccine.

Thus, the country has become a privileged laboratory that allows us to intuit how vaccines are working in the real world. And the results are convincing: of the first 1.82 million Israelis who have been immunised, only 1,248 (0.07%) have been infected with the virus, 122 have required hospitalisation and 23 have died, according to the latest official data, published on Monday. "The result of vaccination in Israel is very good, because cases have fallen sharply in all age groups that have been vaccinated," Joaquim Segalés, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, told ARA. The exception are the youngest, who began to be vaccinated later - now over-16s are being vaccinated - and they are experiencing a certain upturn: 67% of new cases are among the under-30s. "There is a very high percentage of the population vaccinated, and this has generated a false sense of security among those who are not. It is important to make the message clear that prevention measures cannot be relaxed until 80% or 90% of vaccinated people are vaccinated", warns Segalés.

The results from Israel are important because they are the first with a significant volume of population and confirm what the clinical studies had already said, as published a few days ago in the New England Journal of Medicine. If we compare groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, the efficacy against infection is 92% and 94% when it comes to preventing the onset of symptoms. Segalés stresses that this is also good news: "It is now clear that the vaccine is not only effective in preventing the disease, but also in reducing its transmission".

The Israeli success also has dark spots. The Palestinian population has been excluded - the Palestinian Authority has bought Russian vaccines that Israel blocked for a week in the Gaza Strip - and only this Monday did Tel Aviv authorise the vaccination of the 100,000 West Bank workers who are allowed to work in Israel.