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A Look Inside The European Union's Struggling COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The EU and its governing body, the European Commission, have come under heavy criticism for a slow coronavirus vaccine rollout. In hard-hit Portugal and other European countries, vaccinations have had to stop because of a lack of doses. EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen will have to answer questions from the European Parliament tomorrow. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: European countries usually handle their own health issues, but EU leaders decided to come together to procure COVID vaccines. It was a noble idea, says Sylvie Kauffmann, international columnist with French newspaper Le Monde.

SYLVIE KAUFFMANN: If each member state was left to fend for itself, that would have meant that, you know, rich member states like Germany or France or the Netherlands would have been able to order a lot of doses, but the poorer member states would have had much more difficulties.

BEARDSLEY: Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, says it turned out to be a very daunting task.

GUNTRAM WOLFF: The EU underestimated the challenge to really procure and then deliver vaccines for a continent of more than 400 million citizens.

BEARDSLEY: Economist Nicolas Bouzou says the EU wasted time trying to bring the cost of vaccines down.

NICOLAS BOUZOU: And it's a mistake because the economic cost and social cost of the crisis is huge. And negotiating prices - it makes, economically and financially, no sense.

BEARDSLEY: Just over 3% of EU citizens have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to 9% in the U.S. and 17% in the U.K. Although not directly connected with Brexit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not hesitated to attribute Britain's faster rollout to being free of EU shackles.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We certainly were able to use speed and agility to deliver on the program that we needed to do, and I think it would have been a great pity if we'd followed the advice of the leader of the opposition in the Labour Party who said, stay in the EU vaccines program.

BEARDSLEY: Last month, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen was livid when Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca said it could not deliver the expected doses on time.

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URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Europe invested billions to help develop the world's first COVID-19 vaccines. And now the companies must deliver. They must honor their obligations.

BEARDSLEY: The EU briefly attempted to stop vaccine exports.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The European Union has blindsided the U.K. over its plans to try to restrict exports of COVID-19 vaccines into...

BEARDSLEY: That set off alarm bells in Britain and Ireland, as keeping the Northern Ireland border open was one of the key achievements of years-long, grueling Brexit talks. It was a huge blunder, says Wolff.

WOLFF: Fortunately, the mistake was basically corrected a few hours after it was put on the table. But still, it will be politically exploited, and I'm sure Ursula von der Leyen will get a lot of heat for that in the European parliamentary hearing on Wednesday.

BEARDSLEY: Von der Leyen has acknowledged mistakes and delays, calling the EU a tanker, not a speedboat. But she says the strategy is the right one.

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ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

BEARDSLEY: So do the leaders of the EU's powerhouse members, France and Germany, who endorsed the plan in a joint videoconference.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "What would happen if France and Germany were in competition with each other over the vaccine," asked French President Emmanuel Macron. "It would be counterproductive chaos." Le Monde's Kauffmann says it should've been Europe's finest hour.

KAUFFMANN: In terms of prestige and image and soft power, it's bad. I mean, the fallout is bad.

BEARDSLEY: But she says the pandemic is far from over, and the EU still has time to get things right.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.