Health Minister Chris Fearne has defended a European initiative to order in bulk the coronavirus vaccines after the agreement came under fire from his Belgian counterpart.

Last Monday, EU member states Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands signed an agreement with pharmaceutical group Astra Zeneca to guarantee the supply of 300 million doses of a possible coronavirus vaccine.

The German health ministry, which made the announcement, said the doses, which could be expanded up to 400 million, would be distributed to all member states that decide to participate, proportionally based on their population size.

The inoculation is being developed by Oxford University, which began trials in April and has currently expanded them to include over 10,000 participants.

Fearne was one of the first to call for joint procurement of a vaccine in February and has said that Malta will be joining the initiative.

The agreement, however, has not been met kindly by all member states, with concerns that the four-nation ‘Inclusive Vaccine Alliance’ will interfere with efforts by the European Commission to purchase vaccines ahead of time.

The commission is currently working on a strategy called the Emergency Support Instrument, which would allow it to purchase vaccines on behalf of member states without getting tied up in the bureaucracy of joint procurement.

Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block said it was unreasonable to try to negotiate joint procurement for Europe outside of the mechanism that represents all 27 member states and that attempts to do so would split up the effort and weaken the bargaining position of both initiatives.

Fearne told Times of Malta that while the two initiatives might have originated independently, they were not necessarily to each other’s detriment.

“The principal aim is to ensure that each member state is given access to the COVID-19 vaccine, once it is available on the market. With such a mechanism, member states are working together to access the vaccine rather than competing against each other, which is an ideal scenario for smaller states like Malta,” he said.

“This alliance is not a sign that the European Commission acted inefficiently, rather things happened at a fast rate through collaboration between member states. One initiative does not exclude the other. Both initiatives can be done in tandem as long as citizens have access to the vaccine.” 

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