Richard North, 21/03/2021  

I do not really believe that problems related to Brexit have suddenly disappeared, and that our relations with the EU are now defined by the multiple disagreements over the export of Covid vaccines.

Nevertheless, that is certainly the impression one would gain from this weekend's national media. Brexit-related reports are extremely thin on the ground while the focus is almost entirely devoted to the vaccine issue.

Predictably, sentiment has become polarised and core facts are stridently disputed. This makes monitoring the situation difficult, and trying to be dispassionate even more difficult.

Even to favour one source over another is a partisan act but I would venture that it would be difficult for anyone not to be impressed by the current (at the time of writing) piece in the Irish Times headed: "Brexit blinds Britain to AstraZeneca's blunders".

The sub-header points the way to a message which probably won't go down too well everywhere, telling us that the lack of transparency on the Oxford-developed vaccine is "fuel for European and US caution".

If not entirely dispassionate, the piece opens with a statement which certainly has the ring of truth. "When a single issue defines a country’s politics for as long as Brexit has England's", it says, "it's perhaps inevitable that, after a while, it can be hard to see beyond it".

Expanding in its thesis, it suggests that, for a country still finding its feet after the biggest shock to its international position since the war, everything seems somehow connected to the decision to leave.

Therefore, it was striking that, in British reaction to the suspension of use of the AstraZeneca vaccine across Europe this week, says the paper, "how it was reflexively assumed that the British origins of the product (it was developed in Oxford) was at the root of EU attitudes to it".

It then picks up a comment on Twitter by Tony Parsons, a London-based journalist and "polemicist, where he declared: "The European Union would rather see their people die than the United Kingdom succeed. They have smeared the brilliant cheap efficient AstraZeneca vaccine – an act of medical stupidity and political insanity".

The quote is well-chosen. It represents some of the more strident anti-EU sentiment which, quite evidently, carries through into the upper echelons of the British government where, as the Irish Times observes, "ministers treat every question about the safety or effectiveness of the vaccine as a grievous insult to national honour".

Even some Remainers, it says, "ask whether EU scepticism towards the AstraZeneca jab springs from the continental view that Britain is run by cowboys".

Making the obvious point, we are told that there is no denying that European leaders have found it galling to see the UK sprint ahead in the vaccine race. The rapid start in the UK, as well as in the US and Israel, has increased domestic pressure on those leaders. But, what the IT calls "the Brexiteers' conspiracy theory" doesn't hold up to any real scrutiny.

Thus, while in England, "the Oxford vaccine" is treated as a national champion - a symbol of British pluck and ingenuity - that link is seldom drawn in the EU. There, "the British vaccine" is a formulation applied as rarely to the AstraZeneca jab as "the German vaccine" is used to refer to the one developed in Mainz by BioNTech and produced by the US pharma giant Pfizer.

AstraZeneca, we are reminded, is an Anglo-Swedish firm run by a Frenchman. The biggest share of investment in its vaccine came from the US and the bulk of its production is happening in India. The multinational Oxford vaccine team is jointly led by a scientist from Dublin.

From here, the article takes an interesting turn, dismissing the "conspiracy theory" for overlooking the straightforward and obvious reason for EU caution. Essentially, its trust in AstraZeneca was shaken from early on and has never recovered.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca team managed an extraordinary feat – producing a safe and effective vaccine against a novel coronavirus within a few months. Yet time and again, AstraZeneca has undermined its own efforts with communication blunders, a lack of transparency and a consistent record of overestimating its own capacity to deliver.

The detail here makes sense. Relations between the EU and AstraZeneca have been poisonous since January, when the company slashed its delivery estimates for the first quarter of the year from 100 million to just 30 million – without adequate explanation or notice, as the EU saw it. It continues:
Having talked up its programme through last spring and summer – AstraZeneca originally said it would deliver vaccines by October 2020 – the company made its biggest error in November, when the release of confusing results from its phase-three clinical trials raised eyebrows around the world.

A press release announcing the results said that, depending on dosage, the vaccine was either 62 or 90 per cent effective. But it was US authorities which revealed the higher efficacy rate applied only to a small sample of patients aged under 55.

Nor did AstraZeneca disclose at first that the more efficacious dosage combination (a half-dose followed by a full one) was the unplanned result of a contract manufacturer producing a half-dose by accident.

Production delays during the trial meant many of those participants received the second dose after an extended interval. (It is now believed that the higher efficacy was probably due to the longer interval, meaning the production delay turned out to be very useful).
So the story continues, with Johnson hailing the "incredibly exciting" results produced by the vaccine trials, while the lack of transparency "shook regulators' confidence". AstraZeneca’s stock fell. Governments worried that the confusion would feed vaccine scepticism. Moncef Slaoui, head of the US vaccine taskforce, suggested the difference in efficacy rates could be "random".

Other events combined to reduce confidence in AstraZeneca, leading the IT to conclude that "governments and regulators can be forgiven for being cautious", and "for reasons that have nothing to do with Brexit".

Not least of the value of this piece is that it takes us outside the often foetid and claustrophobic views of the English media, addressing issues which are rarely given any currency by (mostly) London-based journalists.

This clearly makes it difficult for us to appreciate that the EU may have an issue, not so much with the UK but with AstraZeneca, where we now see reports that von der Leyen is threatening the company with a vaccine export ban from its EU-based plants.

While the UK authorities are boasting of a record number of people vaccinated yesterday, Von der Leyen is complaining that Europe had only received 30 percent of the agreed quantity from AZ for the first quarter, arguing that its contract committed AstraZeneca to supplying doses produced in the UK, yet nothing has been received from the British while, as vdL observes, "we are supplying them with vaccines".

Obviously, the situation is a little more complicated than just that, with uptake rates in some EU Member States lower than is desirable, bolstered by a considerable amount of vaccine "hesitance", in part arising from injudicious comments by European politicians.

From this end, though, it has not escaped notice that the vaccine issue provides a major opportunity for UK politicians to capitalise on anti-EU sentiment, putting EU politicians in the frame, distracting public attention from the government's dire handling of Brexit.

If that has been the intention, it is certainly working. It has the Telegraph's Janet Daly chirping that "Boris is now winning the Covid political war", asserting that "Downing Street has won a genuine moral and public relations victory against the EU on vaccinations".

If this is the case, then it is a cheap victory, but the "war" that Johnson has started is not over yet - by any means. As Pete observes, unless the UK is prepared to sustain it's "bad cop" stance, we could come out worst in a prolonged bout of hostility.

For my money, I think that the UK government is handling it badly – although that will not come as a surprise to anyone. Cheap triumphalism comes at a price, and that might be a price we cannot afford to pay.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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