The European Union is “still waiting” for UK prime minister Boris Johnson to say thank you for manufacturing the bulk of the Covid-19 vaccines administered in the United Kingdom, says European Commissioner Thierry Breton.
The French former chief executive, who leads EU co-ordination on vaccine manufacturing and industrial policy, made the comments in an interview with The Irish Times ahead of a trip to Dublin in which he will discuss booster orders and forthcoming reforms to tech regulation.
“We provided during this very difficult period roughly 70 per cent of what our British friends needed in terms of vaccines, because they were not able to produce themselves what was needed,” says Breton.
“I didn’t ask the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to say thank you to Europe, because I know it may be difficult for him,” he continued.
“Being responsible for all the industries in Europe, I’ve seen men and women working day and night, in 55 factories, to make sure that we’d be able to provide enough doses for everyone, including our British friends,” the internal market commissioner said.
“It would have been generous for him to say thank you, at least for these women and men who worked so hard to make sure that the British population would be able to get the vaccines that unfortunately the UK was not able to deliver, but we did,” he added.
“I’m still waiting for the thanks.”
The EU has exported 128 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the UK, according to commission figures – more than enough for the entire British population – though some were in turn sent elsewhere.
A dispute over who had priority for orders after expected deliveries from AstraZeneca fell drastically short earlier this year soured EU-UK relations and brought Brussels to the brink of using the contentious article 16 clause of Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit agreement to enforce oversight of exports to the UK.
“AstraZeneca was was supposed to deliver 300 million doses. And they didn’t. And I don’t blame them, I know it’s very difficult,” says Breton.
“It hurt everyone, including the UK, because the UK was thinking that they would be able to rely on AstraZeneca and they were not able to. So we delivered what the UK needed. All the mRNA vaccines that vaccinated a large amount of the population in the UK were developed and manufactured in European plants.”
Breton notes that Ireland overtook the UK in its vaccination rate in July, and wants to “congratulate” the Irish rollout teams during his visit.
Scientists are currently assessing whether vaccines need to be updated to respond to the new Omicron variant. If so, it will take two to three months for the new generation of boosters to start to be delivered to EU countries.
Under orders already placed earlier this year, manufacturers have agreed to update the vaccines if needed for variants and the EU has a “priority right” for deliveries.
“The good news is we have the technology; it’s working. We have huge firepower in terms of production. In one month, we can produce enough vaccines to vaccinate all the adult population of Europe,” says Breton.
He notes that he is speaking on the one-year anniversary of the first Covid-19 jab, given to 90-year-old Margaret Keenan in a Coventry hospital. “We did this in just one year. Usually it takes five to 10 years,” he says.
Asked about criticism that the EU has not supported waivers of vaccine patents that supporters argue would open up access to more of the world, Breton says the bloc has supplied vaccines to 120 countries and is providing financial support to develop vaccine manufacturing hubs in South Africa and Senegal. He also urges EU countries to be prepared to donate vaccines, as they will end up with an excess.
The visit comes as the EU prepares to overhaul its regulation of the digital sector, and with Ireland’s enforcement record on the tech giants stationed in the country under mounting scrutiny.
Under the proposed overhaul, the European Commission will play a direct enforcement role when problems are deemed to be “systemic” and tech giants will be more accountable to national courts if they break local laws or are called to provide material for investigations, officials say.
The explosion of anti-vaccine disinformation on social media, and the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, have increased momentum for toughened rules on content. Breton’s team recall seeing anti-vax videos become among the most popular content on Facebook.
“The one that was most unbelievable was: ‘I won’t get a vaccine, because if I get a vaccine, I will have some nanoparticles, and then 5G antenna will be able to track what I’m doing’,” Breton recalls. “This one was … pretty far.”
The commissioner says he knows most of the platform chief executives “personally” and has relationships with some stretching back to his time as a chief executive for various tech and communication companies, including France Télécom.
Has he mentioned the disinformation problem to them? “Yes, many times. They were all saying: ‘Yes, don’t worry, Mr Commissioner, we will take decisions.’ They were all committed to taking action but they didn’t. Well, some did. The result was a mixture,” he recalls.
“I’m not going to give names, but they were not inclined to change their algorithm.”
He is building a team with “specific skills” within the commission’s communication industry division that will be able to hold the platforms to account on content.
He likens it to the capacity to regulate the banking and finance industry built up within the commission since the financial crisis.
“We will be able to audit their own algorithm, and make sure that it is compatible with our regulation,” says Breton. “We will just do this for the big gatekeepers or systemic players, the systemic platforms. So, we will organise ourselves.”