BIG Pharma has a bad global reputation for greed and dirty tricks, but the firm and dignified posture adopted by AstroZeneca – and especially its chief executive, the Frenchman Pascal Soriot – under extreme bullying pressure from the European Union, has been exemplary.
This has been especially brave in view of the fact that Europe clearly offers a massively greater market than Britain for drug manufacturers. The European Union ordered 400 million doses of the anti-Covid vaccine, for example, four times the size of Britain’s.
The crucial difference, however, is that Britain made its order three months ahead of the EU, with the result that its success in providing jabs for its people is now more than the combined totals achieved so far by Germany, France, Spain and Italy. There are encouraging signs that it also copes with the new strains of the virus.
No wonder the EU is furious that the chemical giant has run into technical problems at its Belgian plant, reducing its capacity to supply the EU to just over a quarter of its order. But its fury should not be directed at Britain, from whom it is demanding 75 million doses, accompanied by a sinister threat that supplies of the Belgian-made Pfizer drug to the UK will be halted unless it complies with this demand. It should be furious with itself for what has been described by one of its own members as “delay and dithering.”
The EU’s three-month delay in reaching a contract with AstroZeneca was evidently caused by its usual demand that it should pay less than anyone else because it had a much bigger order to cover the needs of its 27 member states. AstroZeneca, which is supplying the drug as a public service at cost price, with no profit margin, resisted the EU’s negotiating demands.
The factory in Belgium has had the same start-up problems as those suffered earlier by the UK factory in learning how to produce such an unprecedently high order- and would doubtless have solved these technical problems in time without the need for the EU to raid its premises, as it did on Thursday.
The EU’s attitude in all this has been described as “nasty and vindictive” and displaying the kind of arrogance we can expect if it ever achieves its ambition of becoming a European superstate. That may be, but my reading of the current dispute is less dramatic: I think it shows the desperation of two women who fear for their jobs.
The first (and the louder of them) is the EU’s Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, a psychologist from Cyprus. She finds herself with insufficient vaccines to satisfy the life-or-death needs of her angry members. She is the one saying that Britain must hand over 75 million doses to her – or else!
The other, the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, speaks more quietly but no less firmly. Her fear is that the incompetence shown by the EU in the vaccine crisis will demonstrate to its own member states that a federal Europe is incapable of meeting the needs of individual nations and could result, when coupled with the economic costs of the pandemic, in the collapse of the superstate idea and even the whole EU.
At the root of the dispute, of course, is bitterness over Brexit. Brussels finds it intolerable that Britain, as a single state outside the control of the EU, is succeeding where it has failed. The EU’s members will have noted this too.
Fingers crossed for England
Although England are in fine form, having won their last four Test series, they will find India are a much tougher prospect this week than Sri Lanka, who they have just beaten by two Tests to nil.
India are bound to be feeling triumphant after returning from a winning series in Australia. England’s record will also give them confidence, but they will be uneasily aware too that the Indian spin bowling attack will be much superior to that of Sri Lanka – and indeed to England’s as well.
Jack Leach and Dom Bess have taken wickets in Sri Lanka, but they will be bowling to a much more aggressive and more spin-savvy batting line-up than they have faced so far. It is a great shame that Adil Rashid cannot be there, and it is unclear if Mo’en Ali will be fit to play.
England’s batting also gives some cause for concern. Apart from Joe Root, who is in the best form of his life, too many of their front-line batsmen have shown a worrying weakness against spin. Zak Crawley failed in four innings out of four, Dom Sibley in three out of four and the new man, Dan Lawrence, in two out of four.
Ben Stokes will return to add strength to the middle order, but it is not known yet if Ollie Pope’s injured shoulder will have recovered in time for the opening of the series in Chennai.
When Crawley and Sibley, aged 22 and 25, opened the batting in Sri Lanka, the 30-year-old Rory Burns, who has been absent on paternity leave, might have felt redundant. Their failures in Sri Lanka, however, have ensured that Burns will be chosen ahead of them both. Sibley’s redeeming fifty in the second Test will probably give him an edge over Crawley as his opening partner.
But who will bat at number three? I have been puzzling over this question ever since the selectors announced that Jonny Bairstow, who has displayed a battling return to form in that position, has been sent home to rest for the first two Tests in India. It looks as though England will have no option but to play Crawley there, even though he has been badly out of form.
Pope, whose batting at its best resembles Ian Bell, is probably destined to take over the number three slot eventually, but he has so far been batting at number six – and it is not sure that he will be fit to play anyway.
Jimmy Anderson’s burst of form in Sri Lanka, taking 6-40, shows that there is still plenty of useful cricketing life left in the 38-year-old. Quick bowlers have been getting a better return on Indian wickets than they used to do in the past. The re-appearance of Jofra Archer will give England a powerful opening duo, and the presence of Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes will ensure that that there is strong competition for places.
I am not so concerned about the loss of Joss Buttler, who has also been sent home to rest, even though he played well in Sri Lanka, both as batsman and wicket-keeper. This is because Ben Fowkes is an excellent replacement and deserves his chance. His Test batting average of 41.5 is better than those of Buttler and Bairstow.
It is going to be a cracking series and England have a better chance of winning in India than for many years. I just wish that their spin bowling was sharper and that the batting wasn’t so heavily dependent on Joe Root.