Mario Draghi makes his mark with the vaccine embargo

It did not take Mario draghi long to make a mark in Europe as Italian Prime Minister.

At his first European summit as Prime Minister at the end of last month, the former head of the European Central Bank made a strong intervention on the slowness of the vaccination campaign in Europe and the need to be tough on it. pharmaceutical companies about their inability to deliver the promised vaccine. Provisions.

Seven days later, the Italian government confirmed that with the approval of Brussels, it had blocked a shipment of doses of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia as part of a EU-wide export authorization scheme it was critical by other countries. The company has been well below promised deliveries to the EU in the first three months of 2021.

Draghi, a man who has achieved impeccable internationalist credentials as ECB president, has become the first leader to trigger a European mechanism that critics see as vaccine nationalism this risks undermining the global fight against the pandemic.

“Imagine what would have happened if [former PM Giuseppe] Tale or [Matteo] Salvini had taken such a position, ”said an official from the Democratic Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

Salvini, leader of the Nationalist League who is also part of the coalition, wrote on Twitter that he was “proud that Italy was the first European country to block exports outside the EU”.

Draghi was appointed prime minister last month to break Italy’s political paralysis and revamp plans to spend up to € 200 billion in EU funds to support economic recovery and faster long-term growth. But an alarming surge in infections in recent weeks means tackling the pandemic is its top priority.

Vials of the Oxford / AstraZeneca Covid vaccine © Remo Casilli / Reuters

His firm stance on export controls was an expression of “strong agitation” over the EU’s management of the vaccination campaign, said Giovanni Orsina, director of the government school LUISS in Rome.

“The current situation shows that Brussels’ negotiating position vis-à-vis the big pharmaceutical companies is very fragile,” Orsina added. “Draghi is using his political influence to restore the balance in this regard, clearly also in favor of Italy. Absurdly, having a person of extraordinary international prestige allows for a much stronger approach to national protection than a pure sovereignist as Prime Minister.

At the EU summit, Draghi asked why the bloc had not imposed tighter vaccine export controls on companies that failed to meet their contractual commitments. Speaking to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, by telephone this week, he stressed “the priority objective of a faster European health response to Covid-19, in particular on vaccines”, according to his office.

In the meantime, he has decided to restart the Italian vaccination program which is managed, with varying degrees of success, by regional governments. As of March 5, Italy had administered just 5.2 million doses, or 8.6 per 100 people, below the EU average. More ambitious vaccination targets are expected within a few days.

Draghi also replaced the coronavirus commissioner with an army logistics general who has experience in Afghanistan and Kosovo and who will work alongside a new head of the civil protection agency. The goal is to speed up vaccination across the country. The government is also considering whether to extend the interval between doses to increase coverage, as in the UK.

Drive-through testing centers and other sites are being converted to vaccination centers, and an investment of € 500 million in a new manufacturing plant is planned.

“The Italian pharmaceutical industry is a sector to be proud of, and it is capable of ensuring the production of vaccines at all stages,” said Giancarlo Giorgetti, Minister of Economic Development and politician of the League this week.

The Democratic Party official said replacing the Covid commissioner with a general was “concerning”, but Draghi’s efforts had otherwise garnered broad support.

Raffaele Trano, a former five-star MP now in opposition, said: “The muscular approach and the logistics revolution seem to be paying off, even against the big pharmaceutical companies who are unreliable at all and whose priority is clearly to put profit before the health of citizens ”.

“There is a need to act quickly, and Draghi is doing what he was called to do: speed up the process as much as possible,” said Paola Boldrini, a center-left Senate member who sits on its health committee.

“Europe has done its best, but Italy is in an emergency situation, which is why the current government has been formed,” Boldrini added. “Unfortunately, despite the great coordination in the disbursement of recovery funds, with vaccines, the EU was not as efficient, the contracts that were signed [with pharmaceutical companies] underestimated the real production capacity of vaccines and Brussels found itself ill-prepared.

Italian officials point out that the decision to block the shipment of vaccines from Catalent, a Lazio-based filling and finishing contractor, was taken jointly with the commission in accordance with the export transparency mechanism introduced in January.

“I would not interpret Draghi’s approach, coordinated with the commission, through the prism of vaccine nationalism but rather of the will and the capacity of the EU to stand up to the big pharmaceutical companies to protect its citizens”, declared Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. The doses were intended for Australia, a country with few new infections and where the vaccination program is still in its early stages.

“I don’t think Italy would have taken this initiative if the country in question was either a developing country or a country in emergency to the same extent as the EU member states.”

“Recently, the intra-European controversy has arisen between the institutions and the big pharmaceutical companies, where it is accused that the EU has not been able to stand up to the companies, thus playing on the lives of the citizens” , Tocci added. “Seen in this light, Draghi’s gesture, far from being an act of nationalism, could be read as the necessary step to avoid rekindling a dangerous Euroscepticism.

Additional reporting by Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli in Milan

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