The European Union lashed out Monday at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, accusing it of failing to guarantee delivery of coronavirus vaccines without valid explanation, and threatened to impose tight export controls within days on COVID-19 vaccines made in the bloc.
Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the EU, already facing heavy criticism for a slow vaccine rollout around its 27 nations, “will take any action required to protect its citizens and its rights.”
The EU, which has 450 million citizens and the economic and political clout of the world’s biggest trading bloc, is lagging badly behind countries like Israel and Britain in rolling out coronavirus vaccine shots for its health care workers and most vulnerable people. That’s despite having over 400,000 confirmed virus deaths since the pandemic began.
The shortfall of planned deliveries of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is expected to get medical approval in the bloc on Friday, combined with hiccups in the distribution of Pfizer-BioNTech shots is putting EU nations under pressure.
“EU member states are united: vaccine developers have societal and contractual responsibilities they need to uphold,” Kyriakides said after two tense negotiating sessions with AstraZeneca that ended late Monday. Both sides will reconvene Wednesday.
The backlog is all the more galling since Kyriakides said the EU had paid 2.7 billion euros ($3.28 billion) to several pharma companies to back the rapid development and ramp up the production potential of several vaccines.
She said Monday’s talks ended “in dissatisfaction with the lack of clarity and insufficient explanations.” The open lack of trust contrasted sharply with the exultant tone only a few months ago when the leading pharma giants made quick and massive strides toward a vaccine against a pandemic the likes of which had not been seen in over a century.
“With our Member States, we have requested from (AstraZeneca) a detailed planning of vaccine deliveries and when distribution will take place,” she said in a Twitter message.
Kyriakides immediately got the support from the bloc’s largest member on the vaccine export controls plan.
“We, as the EU, must be able to know whether and what vaccines are being exported from the EU,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. “Only that way can we und erstand whether our EU contracts with the producers are being served fairly. An obligation to get approval for vaccine exports on the EU level makes sense.” Humanitarian deliveries would be exempt.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held urgent talks with AstraZeneca chief Pascal Soriot, and EU nations also met with AstraZeneca to encourage the British-Swedish company to ramp up its vaccine production and meet its contractual targets.
The EU has committed to buying 300 million AstraZeneca doses with option on 100 million extra shots. Late last week, the company said it was planning to reduce a first contingent of 80 million to 31 million.
The European Medicines Agency is scheduled to review the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine Friday and its approval is hotly anticipated. The AstraZeneca vaccine is already being used in Britain and has been approved for emergency use by half a dozen countries, including India, Pakistan, Argentina and Mexico.
AstraZeneca’s announcement that it will deliver fewer vaccines to the EU early on has only increased pressure on the bloc, especially since Pfizer-BioNTech, the first vaccine to get EU approval, failed last week to keep up its promised deliveries to the EU. Pfizer has temporarily reduced vaccine deliveries to the EU and Canada as it revamps its plant in Belgium to increase overall production. Italy has threatened to sue Pfizer for the delays.
The political pressure started with von der Leyen’s phone call to the AstraZeneca chief. “She made it clear that she expects AstraZeneca to deliver on the contractual arrangements foreseen in the advance purchasing agreement,” said her spokesman Eric Mamer.
“She reminded Mr. Soriot that the EU has invested significant amounts in the company up front precisely to ensure that production is ramped up even before the conditional market authorization is delivered by the European Medicines Agency.”
The company said in a statement that Soriot “stressed the importance of working in partnership and how AstraZeneca is doing everything it can to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.”
The delays will be make it harder to meet early targets in EU’s goal of vaccinating 70% of its adult population by late summer.
The EU has signed six vaccine contracts for more than 2 billion doses, but only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use so far.
Russia and the United States have started expert-level work on the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Monday.
"I can only say that experts are actively working in this direction. This is practical work and it has begun," Zakharova told a TV program.
Commenting on the future of Russian-U.S. relations, the diplomat reiterated that the Donald Trump administration only complicated Washington-Moscow ties, which need to be mended in many spheres.
Also on Monday, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held a phone conversation to discuss the extension of the New START and Russian-U.S. cooperation in the field of security.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that the Kremlin welcomes the U.S. proposal on a full five-year extension of the New START, but it is significant to take each other's concerns into consideration.
In 2010, Washington and Moscow signed the New START, which stipulates limits to the numbers of deployed nuclear warheads and strategic delivery systems by both.
The key pact, the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty in force between the two nuclear superpowers, will expire on Feb. 5.
Estonia’s two biggest political parties say they have clinched a deal to form a new government to be led by a female prime minister for the first time in the Baltic country’s history, replacing the previous Cabinet that collapsed into a corruption scandal earlier this month.
The party councils of the the opposition, center-right Reform Party and the ruling. left-leaning Center Party were expected on Sunday to vote in favor of joining a Cabinet headed by Reform’s prime minister-designate and chairwoman Kaja Kallas.
Both parties are set to have seven ministerial portfolios in the 14-member government, which would muster a majority at the 101-seat Riigikogu Parliament.
A joint statement said the Reform Party and the Center Party “will form a government that will continue to effectively resolve the COVID-19 crisis, keep Estonia forward-looking and develop all areas and regions of our country.”
Earlier this month, President Kersti Kaljulaid, who is expected to appoint Kallas’ Cabinet in the next few days, said tackling Estonia’s worsening coronavirus situation and the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic should be an immediate priority for the new government.
Kaljulaid tasked Kallas to form the government as her pro-business and pro-entrepreneurship Reform Party emerged as the winner of Estonia’s March 2019 general election.
Pending approval from lawmakers, Kallas, 43, will become the first female head of government in the history of the small Baltic nation of 1.3 million which regained its independence amid the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
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A lawyer and former European Parliament lawmaker, she is the daughter of Siim Kallas, one of the Reform Party’s creators, a former prime minister and a former European Union commissioner. Kaja Kallas took the reins at the Reform Party in 2018 as its first female chair.
The government formation marks the second such attempt for Kallas in less than two years as she failed to bring about a Reform Party-led government after the 2019 election. That paved the way for the archrival Center Party and its leader, Juri Ratas, to form a three-party coalition without the Reform Party.
Ratas and his Cabinet resigned on Jan. 13 over a scandal involving a key official at his Center Party suspected of accepting a private donation for the party in exchange for a political favor on a real estate development at the harbor district of the capital, Tallinn.
Estonia’s prime minister since November 2016, Ratas won’t be part of the new Cabinet. Local media reported earlier that he could become the parliamentary speaker in March.
Estonia has been a member of the European Union and NATO since 2004.
Russian police arrested more than 2,600 people Saturday in nationwide protests demanding the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin's most prominent foe, according to a group that counts political detentions.
The protests in scores of cities in temperatures as low as minus-50 C (minus-58 F) highlighted how Navalny has built influence far beyond the political and cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
In Moscow, an estimated 15,000 demonstrators gathered in and around Pushkin Square in the city center, where clashes with police broke out and demonstrators were roughly dragged off by helmeted riot officers to police buses and detention trucks. Some were beaten with batons.
Navalny’s wife Yulia was among those arrested.
Police eventually pushed demonstrators out of the square. Thousands then regrouped along a wide boulevard about a kilometer (half-mile) away, many of them throwing snowballs at the police before dispersing.
Some later went to protest near the jail where Navalny is held. Police made an undetermined number of arrests there.
The protests stretched across Russia’s vast territory, from the island city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk north of Japan and the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk, where temperatures plunged to minus-50 Celsius, to Russia’s more populous European cities. Navalny and his anti-corruption campaign have built an extensive network of support despite official government repression and being routinely ignored by state media.
“The situation is getting worse and worse, it’s total lawlessness," said Andrei Gorkyov, a protester in Moscow. "And if we stay silent, it will go on forever.”
The OVD-Info group, which monitors political arrests, said at least 1,045 people were detained in Moscow and more than 375 at another large demonstration in St. Petersburg.
Overall, it said 2,662 people had been arrested in some 90 cities, revising the count downward from its earlier report of 3,445. The group, which conducts its count through regional associates and runs a hotline for information, did not give an explanation for its revision. Russian police did not provide arrest figures.
Undeterred, Navalny's supporters called for protests again next weekend.
Navalny was arrested on Jan. 17 when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a severe nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin and which Russian authorities deny. Authorities say his stay in Germany violated terms of a suspended sentence in a 2014 criminal conviction, while Navalny says the conviction was for made-up charges.
The 44-year-old activist is well known nationally for his reports on the corruption that has flourished under President Vladimir Putin's government.
His wide support puts the Kremlin in a strategic bind — officials are apparently unwilling to back down by letting him go free, but keeping him in custody risks more protests and criticism from the West.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department condemned “the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia” and called on Russian authorities to immediately release Navalny and all those detained at protests.
Navalny faces a court hearing in early February to determine whether his sentence in the criminal case for fraud and money-laundering — which Navalny says was politically motivated — is converted to 3 1/2 years behind bars.
Moscow police on Thursday arrested three top Navalny associates, two of whom were later jailed for periods of nine and 10 days.
Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later. Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.
Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, unusually durable in an opposition movement often demoralized by repressions.
He has been jailed repeatedly in connection with protests and twice was convicted of financial misdeeds in cases that he said were politically motivated. He suffered significant eye damage when an assailant threw disinfectant into his face. He was taken from jail to a hospital in 2019 with an illness that authorities said was an allergic reaction but which many suspected was a poisoning.
French doctors have new advice to slow the spread of the virus: stop talking on public transport.
The French Academy of Doctors issued guidance Friday saying people should “avoid talking or making phone calls” in subways, buses or anywhere in public where social distancing isn’t possible. Masks have been required since May, but travelers often loosen or remove them to talk on the phone.
Other French experts are urging more dramatic measures – notably a third lockdown.
France’s hospitals now hold more COVID patients than in October, when President Emmanuel Macron imposed a second lockdown. Virus patients occupy more than half of the country’s intensive care beds.
Infections in France are gradually rising this month, at more than 20,000 per day. France currently has the longest virus curfew in Europe, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and restaurants and tourist sites have been closed since October.
The government has so far sought to avoid a full new lockdown. Protests are expected around France on Saturday against virus-related layoffs and to support those arrested for holding a techno rave party despite virus restrictions.
France has seen 72,647 virus-related deaths.