European Union's coronavirus V-Day is (mostly) a win for Ursula von der Leyen

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EU countries will on Sunday roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated together — even though European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has had to grip their hands tightly at times. 

Back in June, the Commission proposed negotiating vaccine deals on behalf of all 27 member countries. Now, on December 27, those vaccines can finally be administered.

Von der Leyen on Saturday hailed this near-simultaneous start of vaccinations across the bloc “a touching moment of unity,” but the road to that moment hasn’t always been easy.

Hungary tested this unity shortly after von der Leyen’s statement by jumping the gun and using the first shots on health care workers a day before the rest of the bloc.

Getting countries to agree to December 27 as a common vaccination day had been a hurdle. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen originally said the country would not wait for others to start vaccinating, but within days fell in line with the December 27 date. Others, like the Netherlands, will wait until January but only due to technical issues with setting up the registration process.

Overall, the EU’s vaccination strategy has been a major test for the Commission, as countries handed over some of their national health powers to secure doses together. But as far as the EU executive is concerned, it has passed.

Brussels has boasted of its success — six deals with major vaccine producers, and a seventh on the way — as proof that it should take on more health powers from EU countries in the future as part of its so-called “European Health Union.” 

The fact that the first vaccine to be used is one developed in Germany, funded by EU research money and backed by European Investment Bank funding, was the cherry on top. “This is a true European success story,” von der Leyen said Monday after the Commission approved the vaccine.

Four major countries — Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy — essentially forced the Commission’s hand this spring by signing a deal with Oxford/AstraZeneca on their own, but Brussels meant business: The Commission ditched its top names in the health department and brought in Sandra Gallina, the No. 2 in its trade department, to lead negotiations, found approximately €2.1 billion in down payments for vaccines, and formed a largely secret team of negotiators to extract the best deals from vaccine producers.

Sunday is when those months of hard work pay off as most EU countries start using the first doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. The bloc should get 12.5 million doses by the end of 2020, according to BioNTech, divided between EU countries based on population. Each country decides who gets vaccinated first, with some prioritizing health care workers and others vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or people with health conditions.

In some countries, politicians will be among the first to get a jab: Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will be vaccinated on Sunday, according to Kathimerini. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis originally was going to be near the front of the queue but changed his mind because advisers thought it would look like he’s skipping the line. 

Countries have not always been happy, though. This past month, Hungary, Poland, Germany and Italy pushed the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the Commission to hurry up and approve the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine as the U.K. and U.S. were already vaccinating the public. Even though the EMA did move up the date to make a decision on the vaccine, Switzerland and Serbia became the first in continental Europe to vaccinate — on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.

Others, largely MEPs but also civil society groups and the French government, have pushed for greater transparency of the vaccine deals, which have been almost entirely secret beyond the number of doses the Commission signed up to buy. The Commission held firm even after a Belgian politician accidentally tweeted out the prices of each vaccine dose.

Countries have not always played by the rules, either. Hungary threatened to use vaccines made by Russia and China, despite the Commission’s warnings. Germany also secured extra doses of three other vaccines, including those made by BioNTech/Pfizer, CureVac and IDT Biologika, the latter of which has not agreed to a deal with the EU. Denmark followed suit this week by purchasing another 2.6 million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.

Still, von der Leyen is counting Sunday as a win. On Thursday, she tweeted that she had been moved to see the first coronavirus vaccines shipped out across the bloc “at the same time.”

“Together,” she wrote, “we will overcome the pandemic.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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