Health Minister Chris Fearne has rubbished suggestions that Malta is secretly procuring extra vaccine doses under the noses of other EU member states.
Fearne said all COVID-19 vaccines obtained by the country had been procured through deals agreed by all EU member states and the European Commission, dismissing claims of “vaccine bazaars” which made headlines across Europe on Friday.
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said earlier in the day that some countries may have signed “secret contracts” with vaccine companies to receive more vaccines than they are entitled to based on EU rules.
He singled out Malta and the Netherlands as cases in point.
"There are clues that point to so-called bazaars where additional agreements between member states and pharmaceutical companies were made," Kurz said.
"Malta will receive three times as many doses per capita as Bulgaria until the end of July," he said.
"The Netherlands would not only receive more doses of vaccine per capita until the end of June than Germany, but almost twice as many as Croatia," Kurz said.
"This is in clear contradiction to the political goals of the EU," he added.
Fair and square
EU members have banded together to jointly procure vaccines, with doses distributed among countries based on population size. It is up to member states to decide how many doses of each vaccine they wish to order.
While Malta has ordered its entire allotment of each vaccine, Euronews reported on Friday that some other EU member states had not done so.
Fearne told Times of Malta that the government had obtained its vaccines through that EU joint procurement mechanism, like all other member states.
“All COVID vaccines procured by Malta have been procured within the framework of the Advanced Purchase Agreements and the Joint Procurement mechanisms as agreed by the European Commission and through the EU Joint Steering Committee,” the minister said.
Fearne, mindful of Kurz’s criticism, also noted that the joint steering committee’s co-chair is “incidentally the Austrian representative.”
Kurz criticised internally
An EU spokesperson downplayed Kurz’s claims of a secret deal.
"Member states may decide to ask less or more of a given vaccine, and this is discussed between the member states," Stefan de Keersmaecker said.
"It's possible in this context, following the outcome of the discussions between the member states, that a new distribution key is agreed upon with the company," he said.
The Austrian chancellor’s claims also came in for domestic criticism from his political rivals, who said the "manoeuvre" was aimed at distracting the public's attention at a time when his government is in "chaos".
"Kurz doesn't even know that his senior officials are negotiating at the EU," the opposition Social Democrats (SPOe) joked, referring to Austria co-chairing the EU’s vaccine steering committee.
Malta has raced ahead of other EU member states in its vaccine rollout, with roughly 17 per cent of the population having received at least one dose as of Friday. Austria, on the other hand, is administering vaccines at around half that rate, per capita.
Kurz’s inflammatory claims reflect growing discontent across European capitals at the slow rollout of vaccines across the EU, which Brussels has blamed on supply issues.
The frustrations have led to cracks in solidarity in vaccine procurement across EU member states, with countries such as Hungary and Poland opening up to shipments of the Russia-made Sputnik vaccine, which is not yet approved by EU regulators, and Austria and Denmark signing deals with Israel to procure second-generation COVID-19 vaccines.