In the eye of the storm
According to Ursula von der Leyen, the age of pandemics has only just begun. An interview about the EU's mistakes and the deeper causes of the crisis
DIE ZEIT: Ms von der Leyen, in this pandemic, political decisions - and mistakes - have a direct impact on people's lives and health. Perhaps the only other comparable situation is wartime. How do you cope with that level of responsibility?
Ursula von der Leyen: On the one hand, it's extremely difficult. On the other, this incredible responsibility spurs me on and motivates me for the very long road we still have ahead of us in this pandemic.
ZEIT: Have you ever felt such a direct responsibility for people's lives before, perhaps when you were Defence Minister?
Von der Leyen: Yes, but this pandemic follows different rules. We are still learning about our enemy, the virus.
ZEIT: When it comes to the pandemic, I don't want to talk about guilt but about mistakes and what we can learn from them. What have been the EU's greatest errors, and your own?
Von der Leyen: It goes without saying that I am following the debate about vaccinations in Germany very closely. I realise that it is different to the debate in most other Member States. So I would like to stress first of all what has gone well. All 27 Member States, large or small, have access to a safe vaccine. Just imagine the alternative, if some Member States had vaccines and many others none. That would have been a disaster for Europe. We bet on the right vaccines and invested massively in them. Three of these vaccines have already been approved worldwide, and two others should soon be added to the list. In parallel, at a time when the USA was still completely absent from the scene, we ensured through our international vaccination initiative Covax that poorer countries will also be supplied with vaccines. 85 percent of countries worldwide still have absolutely no vaccines - that is the real issue at global level, if we look beyond what is happening in Germany and Europe. In Europe, too, it's no use if we all get vaccinated and then mutations come along from Africa because there are not enough vaccines there. Covax will start delivering the first batches before the end of February. We're very pleased about that.
ZEIT: And now to the mistakes!
Von der Leyen: We were very thorough when it came to approval of the vaccines, which cost us time. In that regard, the UK is four weeks ahead of us, that's true. The reason is that the UK Government relied on emergency approval for completely new vaccines. That's a faster way of doing things, but also a lot riskier. The same applies to the delay in administering the second vaccine dose, against the advice of many experts. Together with the Member States, we took a more cautious approach, because we don't cut corners when it comes to health.
ZEIT: Too little, too late is the accusation...
Von der Leyen: We all underestimated the difficulty for the industry of ramping up a complex mass vaccine production programme from nothing. I wish I had known that last autumn. I would still have been very pleased about the researchers coming up with the vaccine so much faster than predicted, but I would have warned that it could take several more months before it was available in large quantities.
ZEIT: When did you notice that things weren't quite right?
Von der Leyen: During the first week of January. Most EU countries were simply glad to be receiving the vaccine. However, in Germany and Denmark the issue quickly became about there not being enough vaccines and that everything had been a failure - which is by no means true. Furthermore, we reacted rapidly by increasing our BioNTech order from 300 million to 600 million doses.
ZEIT: Why didn't the EU decide right from that start to order the total amount it needed from each individual manufacturer and then dispose of any surplus?
Von der Leyen: Even the USA has only ordered 300 million doses from BioNTech so far -100 million of which just last week. As for the theory of there being a plentiful supply, I would suggest reading the latest interviews with the BioNTech Supervisory Board and the Chairman of Merck. Both say that larger initial orders would have been impossible to honour - even if we had paid out billions extra for this. The current bottlenecks are due to the fact that producing a vaccine is extremely complicated and the start is often shaky. There is a limited supply of raw materials, supply chains for the completely new mRNA technology need to be established and, in addition, demand for these substances from all corners of the globe is extremely high.
ZEIT: According to our research, even where there have been supply problems, those who ordered more have received more.
Von der Leyen: I have no information about this. On the contrary, BioNTech announced in early December that it was reducing its initial deliveries worldwide. And let's not forget that worldwide the EU is BioNTech's largest customer.
ZEIT: That does not disprove our theory. Is it possible that, over the past year, the EU didn't quite make the mental jump from ‘frugality on everything' to ‘money is no object' and that it was a little too cautious with its ordering?
Von der Leyen: No. I don't agree. In the summer, it was impossible to tell which company would make it over the finish line. This is why we backed six different vaccines and ordered far more than the EU actually needed. We currently have contracts for 2.3 billion vaccine doses for a total of over EUR 30 billion. With the risk of mutations, this wide range could work to Europe's advantage in the medium-term.
ZEIT: Were there also reservations within the EU over the new technology that BioNTech was using, i.e. the modified messenger RNA?
Von der Leyen: Last summer many questions were indeed being asked by Member States. The fact is that, with the EU taking charge of ordering, all 27 countries were negotiating together and agreeing on contracts the entire time. As for the completely new technology, Germany used its powers of persuasion to great effect. This is particularly true of the German Minister for Health, Jens Spahn. So yes, there were questions. But ultimately, everyone took the decisions together.
ZEIT: May I ask you another question about the EU's mentality? It is said that both the US Administration and Pfizer, the American partner of BioNTech, were much tougher and more resolute in the negotiations. Has the EU been too naive?
Von der Leyen: If that was the case, it was just as well that they were negotiating with the EU as a whole, rather than with a handful of countries. We had good reason to conduct the negotiations at European level from June onwards, because otherwise Europe and the internal market would have been torn apart. The pharmaceutical companies themselves preferred to negotiate with the EU as a whole rather than with 27 individual countries. What is more, we negotiated not just for ourselves, but also for our neighbours. And I stand by that decision. The USA had a head start for another reason, which is that they have a central organisation (BARDA) for dealing with pandemic crises of this kind. Many parts of the chain, from research networks to the authorisation authority — the FDA — and industrial platforms, were already in place and could be activated immediately by Operation Warp Speed. We had nothing like that in the EU.
ZEIT: The negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies have been relatively transparent, but how do you intend to ensure that in the future there is no hit-or-miss situation in the complex and opaque global supply chains for vaccines?
Von der Leyen: We are currently discussing with the industry how to organise this on a European basis. The industry tells us that a modern vaccine is made up of about 400 components, which are supplied by about 100 firms. There is clearly a need for Europe to become more self-sufficient in critical components.
ZEIT: For the most modern vaccine — the one developed by BioNTech — there is a shortage of the special lipids used to produce nanoparticles.
Von der Leyen: Fortunately, we have highly specialised firms which can produce those substances. And we now need to ramp up production capacity in Europe so that we have sufficient quantities to meet the rising need for vaccine.
ZEIT: But at the moment speed is also of the essence. If the coronavirus continues to ‘successfully' mutate, vaccines will have to be adapted constantly, and it may be necessary to develop completely new vaccines for a third vaccination. Would those vaccines then have to go through the full process of authorisation by the European Medicines Agency, again lasting at least four weeks?
Von der Leyen: No, because we now know much more than we did at the beginning. If a vaccine is adapted to a mutation, the data will in future be shared in real time. To that end, we are now launching a European network for clinical trials. All this will considerably speed up test procedures.
ZEIT: Is your planning based on the assumption that this is just one pandemic or a whole series of pandemics?
Von der Leyen: Scientists are telling us that we have probably already entered the age of pandemics. It looks like they are here to stay. That is why we need infrastructure in Europe similar to BARDA in the United States.
ZEIT: So, given pandemics, in future the EU will become more self-sufficient, more interconnected and keener to invest. Is that the lesson you learn from the shortcomings?
Von der Leyen: The global impact of this pandemic clearly shows that a single country cannot prevail alone. Even if some regions were fully vaccinated, if the virus continued to wreak havoc elsewhere, those regions would not be safe from mutations bringing in a new wave of infections. In the HERA Incubator programme, we are now linking up science, medicine, the pharmaceuticals industry and public authorities throughout Europe so that we can act more quickly next time. That is also one of the lessons of the past 10 months.
ZEIT: If pandemics are here for good, isn't there a need for a completely different discussion about prevention and resilience than the one we've had so far?
Von der Leyen: Absolutely. Seven of every 10 new infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans. In recent years, we have seen epidemics follow one another at increasing speed: Ebola, Sars, Mers, HIV, Zika. A major crisis lies behind this: environmental destruction, climate change, species extinction, intensive livestock farming. We are encroaching more and more on the habitat of wild animals. That increases the likelihood of new viruses spreading from animals to humans. Although the fight against the pandemic is overshadowing everything else at the moment, we also need to address the wider environmental crisis behind it.
ZEIT: The EU's agricultural policy springs immediately to mind in this regard. Our farmers' need for animal feed drives the invasion of primeval forest. It keeps animals which are genetically extremely alike and highly vulnerable to disease in close proximity to each other and to humans, in order to produce cheap food, which then causes lifestyle diseases in humans and increases the number of patients at risk, in turn leading to longer and tighter lockdowns. This vicious ‘agri-pandemic' circle is one which the EU intends to keep going for another 7 years. Isn't that a little ill-advised?
Von der Leyen: You are right. The pandemic is bringing new and sometimes contentious issues to the table. The Commission is sparing no effort to introduce further incentives for more sustainable farming. The work on the Green Deal is also continuing unabated. Preserving biodiversity is an important part of it. When the world comes together this year in Kunming at the UN Biodiversity Conference, we will need a similar breakthrough to the one we had with the Paris climate agreement. This pandemic is a warning sign for the world.
ZEIT: After over a year with von der Leyen as President, is Europe in fact stronger or weaker?
Von der Leyen: At the moment, we are in the midst of a storm. But I am totally convinced that a European answer to such massive crises is the right one. And our successes are also plain to see: the European Green Deal is a global benchmark on climate change. Other regions are now following our lead. Even when we look inwards at ourselves, we can see that we are stronger together. In the end, we agreed on a common response to the deep economic crisis caused by coronavirus. We are investing 1.8 billion euros in our internal market and in a green and digital recovery. We also dealt with Brexit by reaching a good and fair agreement. So we have certainly had our successes, but this is the start of a marathon and I will carry on to the finish line.
ZEIT: The attacks you have suffered in the past few weeks, in particular from Germany - were they the toughest in your career?
Von der Leyen: Probably not, in fact. Facing criticism is part of my job. Above all, I am happy about the support we have in Germany. And don't forget the overwhelming majority of EU countries who are grateful to be safely receiving their vaccines through the EU.
ZEIT: What is your personal experience of living with and in this pandemic?
Von der Leyen: Like many other people, but the other way round. Most people find that they work where they live. I live where I work, here at the Commission headquarters in the heart of the Brussels European district. Of course, I miss my family very much. The next time I see them will, I hope, be at Easter. But millions of people are in the same situation - consumed by a longing to see family or close friends. On the other hand, I am privileged in these bleak times to be able to do something to counter the pandemic.
ZEIT: So how do you have fun? By playing Candy Crush?
Von der Leyen: Definitely not. I have my hobbies, but I keep them private.
The questions were asked by Bernd Ulrich.