Austria is threatening to block the European Commission from securing another 100 million BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine doses unless Vienna gets a bigger slice of the delivery, according to diplomats from three EU countries.
The move is the latest escalatory tactic from Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has been agitating for his country to receive a greater share of EU vaccines — even though data show Austria isn’t among the countries in greatest need. And it’s an ultimatum some fear could imperil a critically needed shipment of jabs as the EU desperately looks for ways to increase vaccine production and supplies.
The fight centers on an upcoming delivery from BioNTech/Pfizer.
The EU in the coming months can get 10 million doses from BioNTech/Pfizer as part of a second contract with the German-American manufacturer to purchase an additional 100 million vaccines — on top of the 500 million already ordered.
Those 100 million doses were originally expected to be delivered toward the end of 2021, but the company has said it can deliver 10 million shots before June 30. The announcement has set off a fight among EU countries over the population-based formula for allocating vaccines.
The fight dominated an EU leaders’ video summit on Thursday, with Kurz reiterating his demand for extra doses. While the summit ended with leaders reaffirming the population-based “allocation key,” the leaders also tasked EU ambassadors to deal with the 10 million dose issue, leaving open a possibility that nations in greatest need would get more.
Austria didn’t wait around for the ambassadors to even have a discussion before upping the pressure.
In a meeting of the EU’s vaccine steering board on Friday morning, Austria once again demanded additional doses, this time with a threat: It would block the Commission from exercising its option on the larger 100 million-dose purchase unless Vienna got its way.
Diplomats from several EU countries expressed outrage over Austria’s threat — and the possibility that the EU could lose the 100 million doses if the purchase option isn’t exercised by a mid-April deadline.
One EU diplomat expressed fury that Austria is blocking the 10 million doses to member states “in dire need of them, like Latvia and Bulgaria.”
“This shows Kurz is willing to jeopardize the lives of 50 million Europeans to get something he does not even need,” the diplomat said.
Another diplomat said Austria had shown little regard for other countries’ needs. “Solidarity is a one way street to Vienna — no one else matters in the end game,” the second diplomat said.
Numerous EU countries have pointed out that Austria is faring better than most of the 27 in both vaccine distribution and in coronavirus cases. While lagging behind initially, Austria has consistently been among the fastest 10 countries with its vaccine rollout over the previous weeks, whether in daily administered doses, total administered doses per 100 citizens or share of people who have received at least one vaccine dose.
In total cases since March 2020 adjusted per capita, Austria is still ranking in the lower half of EU countries, while daily case numbers sit slightly below the EU average.
Asked about the allegations from member states, an Austrian government official didn’t deny that Kurz’s government is threatening to scuttle the 100 million-dose purchase option.
“Austria hopes for a swift solution of this issue in order to be able for the Commission to move forward as soon as possible on the contract of the additional 100 million Pfizer doses,” the official said in a statement sent from Vienna. The official cited the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia and Bulgaria as EU countries supporting Austria’s efforts.
Austria is basing its threat on the argument that the new Pfizer purchase needs unanimous sign-off from EU countries. According to Austria, that’s because the contract requires Emergency Support Instrument funds and legal approval from the EU’s vaccine steering board, which operates on the basis of intergovernmental consensus.
Many others, however, reject Austria’s rationale.
Several other EU countries and the Commission have said that Austria doesn’t have legal grounds to prevent the purchase, as it has already approved the larger, overall contract with BioNTech/Pfizer and the EU’s vaccine strategy.
Still, the move sent EU lawyers scrambling to determine if Austria’s threat has any legal merits. The Commission is generally reluctant to get in the middle of fights between EU member states, and so far the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the EU hasn’t intervened to adjudicate the matter.
The hard-nose tactic shows Kurz’s willingness to up the stakes in his so-far unsuccessful push to get Austria more of the 10 million BioNTech/Pfizer doses than its original, population-based allocation. And some diplomats suggested the brazen move would eventually be rewarded, because leaders simply don’t want a protracted fight.
In the meantime, however, other diplomats said that the Commission would likely have little choice but to push ahead, rather than risk losing the extra doses. One diplomat said Austria is powerless to stop the purchase option, but added that Vienna was welcome to drop out of the joint vaccine procurement program entirely.
“It is an empty threat as Austria can’t block the joint procurement scheme,” the diplomat said. “But if Vienna doesn’t want to participate in the joint procurement scheme any longer, it will surely get its way. Other member states would certainly be ready to step in and buy up the Austrian share.”
Despite the thin justification for his demand, Kurz has had some initial success. In addition to dominating the leaders’ summit, he got the EU’s vaccine steering board stripped of its authority to divide up the 10 million doses. The decision will now rest with EU diplomats, who will begin discussing the matter Tuesday.
Normally, the heads of state and government are called on to solve problems too complicated for diplomats in Brussels. One diplomat said it was the first time ambassadors were officially tasked by leaders to solve a problem. The Portuguese presidency of the Council is expected to issue a proposal at a meeting on Wednesday.
It’s unclear if Austria would resort to legal measures to stop the Commission from exercising the purchase option. Some diplomats warned that such a move could result in the EU losing the 100 million doses altogether.
So far, EU countries generally seem to agree that 1 to 2 million of the 10 million doses in the advance delivery should be given to countries in greater need of vaccines, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, and possibly Slovakia and Estonia. Some countries, led by Poland, do not want to give any additional doses beyond the pro-rata allocation, according to two diplomats.
When asked about Warsaw’s position, a Polish diplomat said that “we are still waiting for concrete proposals and distribution key which must appear on the table. Poland consistently supports the solidarity.”
The EU’s pro-rata formula gives countries the option to purchase vaccines according to their population size. If a country declines to purchase its full allotment, those doses are made available to others.
Diplomats have said Kurz’s push is a cover-up for the fact that Austria didn’t initially buy all of the BioNTech/Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson doses made available to it under the pro-rata allocation.
Countries aren’t expecting to get their first Johnson & Johnson doses until the end of April, as the vaccine substance has to be put into vials in the U.S. Washington won’t allow the export of those vaccines until the American market is supplied.
Two EU diplomats confirmed that the first shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines is substantially less than what was expected, although the company should meet its obligation to supply the EU with 55 million doses by the end of the second quarter.
If the EU doesn’t get any Johnson & Johnson doses for a while, one of those diplomats said Austria could continue to speed ahead of other countries relying more on the American one-shot vaccine to reach their vaccination targets.
“We still haven’t received them,” the diplomat said. “We have seen from past experience all sorts of things can go wrong.”
Cornelius Hirsch contributed reporting.