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Bütikofer says China has miscalculated

Catherine Feore



In response to the decision by EU foreign ministers this morning (22 March) to sanctions imposed on four Chinese nationals and one entity linked to the persecution of the Uyghur minority in Xiangjiang province, China has announced retaliatory sanctions for ten individuals and four entities. One of those listed is Reinhard Bütikofer MEP, chairman of European Parliament’s China Delegation. EU Reporter spoke with Bütikofer about the sanctions and what they would mean for Europe. 

“Well, it did come as a surprise that China went this far in their reaction to our human rights sanctions,” said Bütikofer. “[The EU] sanctioned four individuals and one entity over atrocious human rights violations and they retaliated with sanctions on ten individuals and four entities because the EU criticized human-rights violations. When you look at the people they attack, it is five members of the European Parliament from the four major political groups, national parliamentarians, esteemed think tanks, the whole human-rights subcommittee of the European Parliament, and the political and security committee of the European Council. So they are signaling that if you criticize human-rights violations in China, we will go against your very institutions.” Rather than intimidating the European Union, Bütikofer says that China has miscalculated and that they have probably galvanized public support for the EU’s measures. 

The European Union has said that it wants a strategic partnership with China, while recognizing that it is a systemic rival. We asked Bütikofer if this approach should still apply.  

“No, I don't think so. The strategic partnership, that was ten years ago, that has fallen by the wayside. Today, we say that China is a systemic rival. It's also a competitor. While we want to co-operate with China, China refuses to co-operate.”

Asked about the recently agreed China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI)

Bütikofer says it is too early to assess, but that it was unlikely to receive the approval of the European Parliament without the removal of sanctions. 

On further co-operation, he said that there is still a lot the Parliament can do - without waiting for the National People's Congress: “Look, we're not saying we don't want to talk to China. We're not saying we want to rupture the relationship. We're not saying we want to avoid co-operating. It's just the opposite, but what we're not going to accept are Chinese rules, that they don't accept freedom of speech in their own country is bad enough, that they now want the suppression of freedom of speech of other countries is just utterly unacceptable. And it will not happen in this European Union.”

Gender equality

‘Domestic violence is the shadow pandemic’ Jacinda Ardern

Catherine Feore



To mark this year’s International Women’s Day (8 March), the European Parliament is underlining the crucial role of women during the COVID-19 crisis. New Zealand is among the most successful in fighting the spread of the virus - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern applied an elimination, rather than the suppression strategy adopted widely in Europe.

‘Go hard and go early’

In New Zealand, life has almost returned to normal for its five million citizens. Bars, restaurants, sports and concert venues are open and the prime minister hopes to vaccinate the entire population before border controls are relaxed. 

The economy has fared better than elsewhere, demonstrating that rather than a careful trade-off between economic and health measures, effective management of the virus has been a pre-requisite for a thriving economy. Ardern's leadership has been widely praised for her leadership and her  'Go hard and go early' message that has meant very low infection levels and fewer than 30 deaths.

Addressing the European Parliament, Ardern said: “In New Zealand, our approach in battling COVID-19 has been one of inclusivity the idea that everyone needs to do their bit to protect one another, especially our most vulnerable. I often talk about our population is a team of 5 million. As we move to a phase of vaccination, we are not a team of 5 million, but we are a team of 7.8 billion. The success of individual countries or regions means little unless we are all successful.”

Ardern also pointed out how women have borne the brunt of this crisis: “Women are at the forefront of fighting the COVID crisis. They are amongst the doctors, nurses, scientists, communicators, caregivers and frontline workers who face the devastation and challenges of this virus every day. Along with being directly affected by the virus itself and its immediate impacts on our livelihoods. We’re also the subjects of intensified domestic violence. This is being reported as the shadow pandemic in all corners of the world.”

The parliament argues that women have been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, partly because of their predominant role in the healthcare sector. Many have also been hard hit as they are in insecure or precarious jobs, which have disappeared or changed with the crisis. In addition, the continuing lock-downs have led to an increase in domestic violence. Parliament has called for these inequalities to be addressed.

Women on the COVID-19 frontline

Of the 49 million care workers in the EU, who have been most exposed to the virus, around 76% are women.

Women are over-represented in essential services ranging from sales to childcare places, which remained open during the pandemic. In the EU, women account for 82% of all cashiers and represent 95% of workers in domestic cleaning and home help fields.

Lower levels of job security for women

Around 84% of the working women aged 15-64 are employed in services, including in the main Covid-hit sectors that are facing job losses. Quarantine has also affected sectors of the economy where traditionally more women have been employed, including nursery, secretarial and domestic work.

More than 30% of women in the EU work part-time and occupy a large share of jobs in the informal economy, which tend to have fewer labour rights as well as less health protection and other fundamental benefits. They are also much more likely to take time off to care for children and relatives and during lockdowns often had to combine teleworking and child care.

Escalation of violence against women

Around 50 women lose their lives to domestic violence every week in the EU and this has increased during lockdown. The restrictions have also made it harder for victims to get help.

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EU publishes redacted AstraZeneca advance purchase agreement

EU Reporter Correspondent



Following heated debate on the content of the EU’s contract with AstraZeneca (AZ), the company agreed to the publication of a redacted version of the advance purchase agreement (APA) it reached with the EU. The contract appears to confirm the EU’s position. 

Earlier in the day, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, reportedly said on German radio that the commitments in the contract were binding and crystal clear, and that all production facilities, including those in the UK, are mentioned in the contract. 

The publication followed a renewed request from the European Commission (27 January) for AstraZeneca to publish the contract signed between the two parties on 27 August 2020. A European official informed journalists that the vast majority of redactions had been at the companies request, with only two small redactions concerning ongoing negotiations requested by the EU-side. While the Commission would have preferred a more complete document, including the schedule of dose delivery to be included, it decided that it was preferable to publish what it could as quickly as possible. 

‘Best efforts’

The contract repeatedly refers to ‘best reasonable efforts’, in his interview with La Repubblica (26 January), the AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot claimed that his company had "no obligations, just best efforts" to meet the delivery schedules of vaccines to the EU. He said that AstraZeneca would:  “try our best, but we can't guarantee we're going to succeed.”

A senior European official directed journalists to an article in The Guardian. In the article David Greene, the president of the (English and Welsh) Law Society speculated: “If they [AZ] gave assurances that they made reasonable best efforts to supply the EU but were in fact diverting material from one place to another, that would on the face of it be a potential breach of obligations to use reasonable best efforts.” In the same article legal commentator, David Allen Green familiar with government public procurement is quoted: “The existence of that ‘best efforts’ provision may not be that helpful to AstraZeneca, if the correct construction of the contract is that it does not cover diverted capacity as opposed to lack of capacity.”

The Commission made an analogy with intent (mens rea) in criminal law saying that it would be for a judge to decide, for example, if AZ in comparison with another similar company, had made ‘best reasonable efforts’, or if it was acceptable that the EU had only received vaccine doses from one plant. 

Britain first?

In his interview, Soriot said that since the UK signed first it would be supplied first, describing it as “fair enough”. However, in the contract, AstraZeneca made an explicit commitment that they are under no obligations that are in conflict with the obligations it has to the EU:

Article 13(1)e AstraZeneca, Advanced Purchasing Agreement with EU

Soriot also claimed that the UK manufacturing plants were specifically dedicated to the UK’s contract and supply, with the possibility of the EU benefitting from UK production later on. However, the contract is explicit that the UK plants are included in the agreement.

Article 5.4, AstraZeneca, Advanced Purchasing Agreement with EU

 The same official directed journalists to Schedule A, which while redacted indicates the plants involved. 

Schedule A, AstraZeneca, Advanced Purchasing Agreement with EU

The Commission hopes to be able to publish all contracts under the Advance Purchase Agreements in the near future.

Later today (29 January) the Commission will publish an implementing regulation allowing greater transparency and clarity on the movement of vaccines, with the possibility of export restrictions.

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Where are we in the COVID-19 vaccine race?





India on Friday (1 January) became the fourth country to approve a coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, authorising the vaccine’s rollout in coming weeks in the country with the second highest number of infections, writes Reuters.

The following is what we know about the race to deliver vaccines to help end the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide:

US drugmaker Pfizer and German partner BioNTech have been the COVID-19 vaccine trailblazers.

On 18 November, they became the first in the world to release full late-stage trial data. Britain was the first to approve the shot for emergency use on 3 December, followed by Canada on 9 December and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on 11 December. Several other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Mexico, have also approved it.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the shot on 21 December and India is accelerating its review.

The World Health Organization on Thursday listed the vaccine for emergency use, in a move seeking to speed access to it in the developing world.

Moderna Inc was a close second to Pfizer in many countries after it released a full data analysis for a late-stage trial on 30 November showing a 94.1% efficacy rate for its vaccine.

The United States authorized Moderna’s vaccine on 19 December, while Canada approved the shot on 23 December and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will do so on 6 January.

India approval of a two-dose version of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, COVISHIELD, which has also been given the green light by Britain, Argentina and El Salvador, is a major win for a shot seen as crucial for mass immunisations.

Questions about the robustness of its trial data have complicated the approval process.

The British company announced interim late-stage trial data in November showing two full doses were 62% effective while a half-dose followed by a full dose had a 90% success rate - but UK regulators the more successful outcome had not stood up to analysis.

AstraZeneca is also in discussions with the European Union’s European Medicines Agency, which is conducting a rolling review of the vaccine.

US drugmaker Johnson & Johnson plans to deliver trial data in January, teeing it up for US authorization in February if its shot is effective. It reduced the enrolment target for its clinical trial to 40,000 volunteers from 60,000 on 9 December, potentially speeding results that are tied to how quickly participants become infected.

US firm Novavax is running a late-stage trial in Britain with data due in the first quarter of 2021. It expects to start a large-scale trial in the United States this month.

France’s Sanofi and Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline, however, announced a setback on 11 December in their attempts to develop a vaccine. The drugmakers said that it showed an insufficient immune response in older people in mid-stage trials and that they would start a new study in February.

The companies usually test their vaccines against a placebo - typically saline solution - in healthy volunteers to see whether the rate of COVID-19 infection among those who got the vaccine is significantly lower than in those who received the dummy shot.

The trials rely on subjects becoming naturally infected with COVID-19, so how long it takes to generate results largely depends on how pervasive the virus is where trials are being conducted. Each drugmaker has targeted a specific number of infections to trigger a first analysis of their data.

The World Health Organization ideally wants to see at least 70% efficacy. The FDA wants at least 50% - which means there must be at least twice as many infections among volunteers who received a placebo as among those in the vaccine group. The EMA has said it may accept a lower efficacy level.

Although Pfizer’s shot was the first to be rolled out following the publication of full Phase III trial data, Russia and China have been inoculating their citizens for months with several different vaccines still undergoing late-stage trials.

China on 31 December approved its first COVID-19 vaccine for general public use, a shot developed by an affiliate of state-backed pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm. The company said it is 79% effective against the virus.

Russia said on 24 November its Sputnik V vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya Institute, was 91.4% effective based on interim late-stage trial results. It started vaccinations in August and has inoculated more than 100,000 people so far.

India plans to make 300 million doses of Sputnik V next year and Argentina has given the green light for emergency use of the shot, with some 300,000 doses arriving in the country on 24 December.

China launched an emergency use programme in July aimed at essential workers and others at high risk of infection. It has vaccinated about one million people as of mid-November using at least three shots - one developed by the state-backed China National Biotec Group (CNBG) and one by Sinovac Biotech.

Trial data on a COVID-19 vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech has varied: interim data from a late-stage trial in Turkey showed its CoronaVac shot is 91.25% effective, while researchers in Brazil say the shot was more than 50% effective.

The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, said on 9 December that one of the CNBG vaccines was 86% effective based on interim results from a late-stage trial in the Gulf Arab state.

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