EU Industrial Policy Priorities, including Vaccine Production and Digital Transformation: Discussion with Commissioner Thierry Breton

Tá leithscéalta faighte againn ó Teachtaí Harkin agus Calleary. We have received apologies from Deputies Harkin and Calleary.

This is a very important session on EU industrial policy priorities, including vaccine production and digital transformation. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market, European Commission. We are looking forward to this engagement. I thank the Commissioner for the important detail of keeping his presentation brief, which will allow for more engagement.

All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending remotely from outside the Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege, and as such they may not benefit from the same level of immunity against legal proceedings as witnesses who are physically present in the building. Witnesses participating in this committee session from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised they should also be mindful of their domestic law and how it may apply to the evidence they give.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House or the Convention Centre Dublin or both, in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit members to participate where they are not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. In this regard, I ask members partaking via Microsoft Teams to confirm they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus prior to making their contribution to the meeting.

Unfortunately, the Commissioner must be at another meeting by 10.40 a.m. He has obliged us by providing a short opening statement and I will try to get all members into the session. I call the Commissioner to make his opening statement.

Mr. Thierry Breton

I thank the honourable Members of Dáil Éireann and the honourable Members of Seanad Éireann for giving me the opportunity to appear before the committee today.

I regret I cannot be before the committee in person but next time, hopefully soon, I will be delighted to come to see members. This is a timely exchange; it is important to do it ahead of the industrial strategy update, which the Commission will present next week. This will support the triple transition to make our industry more green, digital and resilient.

I will not go into detail now, although I will address one area that clearly illustrates the importance of resilience, which the Chairman mentioned, namely, our vaccine production strategy. Today we face an historical challenge, that of vaccinating Europe and the world in record time. We overcame the scientific challenge by developing vaccines. That was done mainly thanks to European research, as four of the vaccines we are using or will use have been developed in Europe. The challenge is now an industrial one, namely, to produce them. No country can do this alone. Therefore, I am convinced that European solidarity is the only way to avoid vaccine nationalism. The industrial ramp-up is today a reality. Since January, Europe's vaccine production capacity has doubled every other month. By the second quarter, we expect 410 million doses to be delivered to member states. This included the 50 million additional doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which we agreed to front-load from quarter 4 to quarter 2. For Ireland, for example, this means an additional 400,000 doses that were not planned. Ireland will receive between 4.5 million and 5 million doses in quarter 2. This is of course a tremendous jump over what it was in the first quarter; indeed it is three times more. This is also, by the way, the case for all of the EU. In addition, our factories are producing for the world. We are the only continent to do this. We can be proud of that but it is in our interest. We are of course producing for the UK; 70% of its vaccines are coming from Europe. Men and women are working day and night, seven days a week, to produce enough vaccines for the British, for our partners, but also for Covax. The reason for this is clear: it is, as I said, in our collective interest to avoid the development of variants elsewhere. This task is today on the shoulders of the EU. However, we are doing this without any naivete thanks to our export transparency scheme. This also helps me to better monitor our production.

The challenge now for member states is to scale up vaccination campaigns and to fight vaccine hesitancy. To conclude on this point, I am confident that by mid-July we will have produced enough doses to fully vaccinate 70% of the adult population, which is something extremely important. By the end of the year we will have an annual production capacity of more than 3 billion doses. Again, this is extremely important and we will need these to be prepared for the variants and new evolutions of the pandemic, if necessary. The work does not stop here. From this perspective, we need to prepare ourselves. This is why we have put in place the so-called “Hera Incubator”. The Commission is negotiating with Pfizer-BioNTech for 1.8 billion supplementary doses until 2023 as these may be needed for variants. Negotiations with other manufacturers may come on top of that.

I would like to end my introduction with a few words on digital matters, which are of particular relevance to Ireland. The Commission recently presented the Digital Decade, which will serve as a compass to guide us in four key areas: skills, infrastructure, business and public services. We are acting on two dimensions, namely, the modernisation of our regulatory framework, and the support to digital sovereignty.

On the regulatory framework, the Commission has proposed several major Bills on data and platforms. I will just mention the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. While the Digital Services Act provides modernised routes to combat the distribution and sale of illegal content and goods online, the Digital Markets Act targets gatekeepers to prevent them creating unfair conditions and competitions within the ecosystem in which they operate. The objective is very clear. The platforms must adapt to EU rules and not the reverse. Europe is, and will remain, open to anyone who is willing to play by the rules. We are creating a digital space that ensures equal and better protection for consumers across the Union while allowing individual companies to scale up and grow in the Single Market. For this we also need strong co-operation between national regulators to avoid the current fragmentation.

The second dimension is about reducing Europe’s strategic dependencies in key infrastructure and technologies. We are working on four fronts: connectivity with 5G and 6G but also a space-based connectivity project to allow all of Europe to have access to broadband Internet; microelectronics, where we want to be able to design and produce the most powerful and resource-efficient processors in the EU; cloud technology, where we must develop European alternatives to hyper-scalers to store and process the most sensitive data; and finally high-performance computers, where our ambition is to acquire for Europe three supercomputers that are in the top 5 globally. This is about preparing Europe for the industrial data wave ahead of us.

I do not want to be too long. Whether it is on vaccine production or on digital transformation, we must aim to make Europe stronger. Through the European recovery plan, the ground-breaking and largest stimulus package ever, we now have the means for this ambition, but member states must take this opportunity. I look forward to our discussion.

I thank the Commissioner. We will begin our questions. As our time is limited there will be a five-minute cap on it. I call Deputy Howlin, to be followed by Deputy Richmond. He has five minutes.

I thank the Chairman. I take it that is five minutes for the answer as well.

I thank the Commissioner for making the time and providing such a succinct presentation to the committee. I have two questions on different issues. On vaccines, we as Europeans are all extraordinarily proud of the speed of development of vaccines. It was a scientific achievement probably unparalleled in medicine and one to which Europe had significant input. However, Europe did allow the US, the UK and Israel to steal a march ahead of us where the pre-purchase and acquisition of vaccines is concerned. Have we learned from that experience for the next phase or indeed the next pandemic? Can the Commissioner tell us succinctly how we will not make that mistake again?

My other questions concern the separate issue of the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. I do not know whether the Commissioner has had an opportunity to look at the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2020 we recently enacted. It is intended to protect the public space for citizens so that the Internet is as protected as any public park or street against harassment and abuse. Does the Commissioner think that would require a pan-European law? Control of digital platforms was a real difficulty for us in that legislation; a single country cannot do that. If one looks, for example, at Facebook and Twitter banning Mr. Donald Trump for his extremist utterances, surely it cannot be for corporate bodies and platforms to make the determination of what is and is not acceptable. Surely that should be a matter for democratic accountability. Will that be regulated in the European sphere?

Mr. Thierry Breton

On the first question, as the committee will know, I was tasked with being the head of the European vaccine task force on 5 February.

To tell the committee the truth, I looked very carefully at the situation. When I started this new mission, it is true that I had the same feeling as Deputy Howlin. I will tell him very honestly, I do not share his view. I respect his position because I know that his view is probably widely spread, even though I would like to share with the Parliament that it is not exactly my view.

The US, the UK and Israel were mentioned. As member states, we can be proud that this is again a tremendous success for European science. Four of the five vaccines that will be approved have been developed in Europe. It is fair to say that if science has been developed here in Europe, we have been able to benefit from the US agency, which was put in place in 2006 after the events of 9/11 in order to cope with biological war or similar attacks. This agency has the ability to put in a lot of money to accelerate development in cases of necessity and this is what happened. In other words, we developed science on this side of the Atlantic and we were able to partner with our US friends to benefit from the money they have been able to put in, including in European companies, to speed up the way we deliver vaccines which are working. At the same time, as Deputy Howlin rightly said, we had to ramp up our industrial base extremely quickly, as never in history, to be able to produce enough vaccines for everyone.

I do not want to criticise the US because, in my position, I respect everyone. However, the US made an executive order stating that it will not export one single drop of vaccine until it has reached immunity. We are the only ones to decide that 60% of our production will be dedicated to member states and 40% for export to our friends and partners, including, by the way, NATO members. We are the only one to do this in Europe. We have been able to ramp up 53 factories very quickly. It was my task to make sure that everything was working on time. It is my pleasure to report to the joint committee today that we have developed this at exactly the same speed as the US. In other words, at the end of quarter 1 both the US and Europe have been able to produce roughly 12 million doses and now we are accelerating. I believe that at the end of the year we will be producing more vaccines than the US.

The point about Israel is very interesting. I would not encourage the monitoring or control of what is happening in another country. Israel is an important country and has 9 million inhabitants. There was an agreement between Pfizer and Israel to get the required doses to vaccinate 50% of the population in exchange for a health study in an anonymised way. That is what has been done. We produced the vaccines for Israel in our factories in Europe. It is important for Pfizer to monitor the process. It would have been impossible, first, if we had not produced enough doses. In Europe, like in the US, we produced and delivered 14 million does in January. In February, we produced 28 million doses, in March, 60 million, and in April, 120 million doses. We could not do the same thing with our 446 million inhabitants.

We signed an agreement with AstraZeneca in August one day before the UK did so. We were the first to sign. We are still in the process of investigating the reasons. We ordered 120 million doses from AstraZeneca in quarter 1 and 180 million doses in quarter 2 but, unfortunately, the company delivered only 30 million doses. In other words, it delivered only 25% of its commitment to us in Europe in quarter 1, while we understand that it delivered everything which was planned for British citizens. It is not my intention to make any comments, except that if AstraZeneca, which has its headquarters in London, had delivered on its commitment on the other side of the Channel, we would today be the first ones to be vaccinated. The good news is that we are accelerating dramatically and we will be able to deliver probably enough vaccines so that by mid-July Ireland will receive enough doses to be able to vaccinate at least 70% of the adult population, which is extremely important, while the UK said its target was one dose by the end of July for each British citizen. By the way, I would like to tell the committee-----

I am sorry to interrupt the Commissioner, but could he repeat the statistics for vaccines for Ireland? They are important. He referred to 70% but there was a bit of interference.

Mr. Thierry Breton

In quarter 1, we delivered 1.3 million doses to Ireland. In quarter 2, it will be 4.25 million doses and then by mid-July it will probably be between 5.5 million and 6 million doses. The number of adults in Ireland is 3.7 million. This includes also some doses coming from Johnson & Johnson, which offers a one-shot vaccine. This is why we are confident that we be able to deliver enough doses. It is up to member states to organise themselves. It will require a very rapid acceleration to be ready for that. I understand that 12 member states on the list have said that they are fully comfortable with 70%. This number is increasing on a daily basis. As I said in my introductory remarks, it will depend on the ability of the countries to organise mass vaccinations in order to be able to reach 70% of the adult population by mid-July and to make sure that one's fellow citizens will accept to be vaccinated.

If the Chairman wishes, I could say a few words on the task force. The lesson has been learned. We need to organise. We have a task force now. Before signing a new contract now, I asked all the negotiators to make sure that before signing the definitive agreement my task force will investigate and ensure that the pharmaceutical companies with whom we sign up will be able to deliver what they commit to do. The lesson has been learned. We need to have this task force, which is organised now. It will be a good tool to make sure that we can select good partners, like we have done with Pfizer, which did not just deliver, it over-delivered, and also to follow on a daily basis their production capacity in order to give the right, accurate information to allow member states to organise their own campaign.

We are well over the five minutes at this stage. Could the Commissioner give a brief response-----

Perhaps he would come back in writing.

Perhaps he could come back with a written response to the second question because I want to allow other members to ask questions about digital issues.

Mr. Thierry Breton

I am sorry if I took a bit long to respond.

That is no problem.

I thank the Commissioner for his very detailed response to Deputy Howlin. The Commissioner mentioned the stark failure of AstraZeneca to meet its commitments to the European Union. I welcome his comments during the week that future orders should look to the companies that have been successful and that have stood by their contracts. Much credit must go to Pfizer BioNTech which has done so much heavy lifting for all across the EU and particularly Ireland. What ramifications will there be post pandemic for companies which have failed, through questionable means, to meet their contractual obligations to the citizens of the EU in vaccine delivery, which is so vital in returning life and society to normal as well as, crucially, saving lives?

The Commissioner said that 12 member states are comfortable they will be able to achieve 70% roll-out and I have no doubt Ireland will be one of those. What tools will the EU deploy to ensure solidarity across the EU and, indeed, the wider world? Until all are vaccinated, the virus will remain a massive threat to the whole world.

Mr. Thierry Breton

As I said, we have not decided how we will continue to work in the future but it is important we learn which companies are able to fulfil their commitments.

On the legal part of the question, of course we have a contract. I am the one who is the first to trigger, to say there is something wrong happening that we do not understand. My goal was to ensure we got the vaccines as soon as possible and I tried to do everything I can to help with companies, including AstraZeneca. We have contracts and we sent a legal letter to AstraZeneca, which it has 20 days to answer. That is now in the hands of the legal department.

I acknowledge it is extremely difficult to ramp up such a production so quickly. We will probably be the first continent in vaccine production using technology that never existed before at this scale. We should remember there was never a factory that could produce this many doses of a new vaccine. The good news is we have such a large portfolio that now we will be able to fulfil our commitment. The legal department will do what it has to.

Member states are part of the vaccination campaign. I said there are already 12 member states which have said they see this and can organise it themselves. I have no doubt the 27 member states, in the coming days and weeks, will agree the target as they become comfortable they will receive the necessary doses to reach the target. The target is important. Some have spoken of it being the beginning of global unity - I am not an epidemiologist myself, I am just repeating what I hear in expert debates - but it is also important to give some light at the end of the tunnel for our citizens, including before the holiday season. That is very important after everything we have gone through collectively and individually. That is also why we decided to put the green certificate in place to start to reopen our borders for travel.

The vaccine strategy in the EU is based on solidarity and it has worked. I know it was challenging at the beginning, I accept that, but at the end of the day it has worked. No one single country could have done this. We have been able to do this all together. There was a challenge at the beginning but it is important to avoid vaccine nationalism. We also bear on our shoulders the vaccination of the world today. We are the only group to export vaccines massively outside Europe. We are doing this for our allies, partners and for our NATO allies, and it is our responsibility to do this in the future with COVAX and for Africa. It is also in our interest. The Deputy mentioned what will happen if we do not do this. Look at what happened in the UK. It started its campaign, then there was the British variant, and now there is the Brazil variant. It is in our interest to ensure we can help everyone with the industrial facility we have now in Europe.

I thank the Commissioner for this presentation. I also raise global solidarity and the procurement of vaccines for developing countries. The entire EU pledge to COVAX is now €2.2 billion. Is the EU doing enough to ensure global vaccination? Is there a timescale for the world to be vaccinated? As everyone has said, no one is safe until all of us are safe. The EU is only part of the global situation, but what is the timeline for mass global vaccination?

Following on from the previous speaker's remarks on AstraZeneca and its failure to produce and deliver enough vaccines, what is the EU's current position with that company? It has let us all down. Are those problems resolved? Where are we in discussions and negotiations with AstraZeneca?

Finally, is there a timescale for finalising the digital green certificate? It has to go before the European Parliament. Will it cover travel only or might it be used in other circumstances? If so, are there issues around civil liberty, such as the right to privacy and the right to bodily integrity? Will the Commissioner confirm that the certificate will only relate to foreign travel within the EU and some adjacent states?

Mr. Thierry Breton

On solidarity, I reiterate that we are the first group in COVAX. We can be proud of that, but in a more selfish way it is also in our interest. It is not enough but we are the only one using our own production to donate significantly to COVAX. Of course, there are other donors but we are already exporting vaccines to more than 150 countries either through the COVAX instrument or directly. We do our fair share without putting the EU vaccination strategy in danger. It is in the ramping-up phase.

I have had a lot of discussions with my counterpart in the US. The EU is doing this alone and we will be very pleased when the US rejoins. It is to be hoped that will be soon because it is a big task but we have to do it.

We ordered 200 million doses which we hope to have in the second quarter. We expect to deliver between 800 million to 1 billion doses in the second half of the year.

Of course, we may not need all of that supply. We may need part of it for the variants. Companies are already working on a specific booster, if it is needed. We will also have other doses and, as I mentioned, member states will be part owners of those doses. Those member states will have the ability to do what they want with those doses, and that includes donating them. This is an important topic and we will have to discuss it further in the second half of the year, but I am totally with the Deputy. This is a joint fight. We hope that before the end of the summer, the US and Europe will have vaccinated their adult populations. Europe represents only 10% of the population of the planet. That is why it is extremely important.

On the question on AstraZeneca, I cannot comment because we are in a legal proceeding. I can tell the Deputy AstraZeneca has committed to deliver 70 million doses in quarter 2. A big part of that total is coming from European factories. AstraZeneca also wants to use the worldwide supply chain. I have no doubt that AstraZeneca is making its best efforts to achieve delivery of 70 million vaccines. As I said at the beginning, thanks to the additional 50 million doses coming from Pfizer that we did not expect, we can have a level of comfort. I worked in industry before I became a Commissioner and can tell the committee that, of course, nothing is certain, especially in the vaccine industry. However, we can have a level of comfort about the fact that we will be able to deliver the number of doses needed to achieve the mid-July target.

The Deputy also asked about the digital green certificate. It is important to note the certificate is not a passport. It is to simplify schedules. Its use will be limited to the time of the pandemic. It will have simple information and will be totally protected because the general data protection regulation, GDPR, is mandatory and there is absolutely no reason the data will be used for other reasons. It will, of course, be in the hands of member states. We want to have exactly the same procedures and format across EU member states. If citizens of member states are asked for the certificate should they want to go to another country and if someone is travelling by aeroplane, it is easier to have the certificate and it will facilitate boarding. The certificate will not be mandatory so if an EU citizen does not have a certificate, an airline company may require a PCR test, as they do today. This tool could be used or it could be on paper. If a passenger does not have a PCR test, an airline company may ask him or her to undergo a rapid test, or whatever. It will definitely be a tool, although it will not be mandatory. The certificate regime will be in the hands of the member states to decide what they want to do with it. We know that it will be an extremely important tool to allow our fellow citizens to travel more safely and freely. There is €30 million in my portfolio to help member states to develop this certificate, if necessary. We also have a technical team and if it is necessary, we can put the team at the disposal of some member states when required because our target is to be ready by the end of June. There will be no exchange of personal data. There will be a certified and secure QR code.

I thank the Commissioner for the information he has given us. What supply of vaccines will Ireland get in quarter 2? I did not quite get the figure.

Mr. Thierry Breton

In quarter 2, between 4.5 million and 5 million vaccines will be distributed to Ireland.

It will be between 4.5 million and 5 million.

Is that in quarter 2?

Mr. Thierry Breton

It is.

That figure is cumulative.

That figure is cumulative, including the previous 1 million doses. Does Mr. Breton expect 3 million vaccines, or thereabouts, to be delivered to Ireland in quarter 2?

Mr. Thierry Breton

I do not think so. Those are my figures.

Mr. Breton can check that and I will ask my other questions.

Mr. Thierry Breton

That is my view. That is the figure I have on my side.

We welcome the stated-----

Mr. Thierry Breton

The Deputy should remember that we now have something that was not planned, that is, the 50 million additional doses from Pfizer. That is another top-up for Ireland that perhaps was not in the Deputy's figures.

There has been a wobble on the supply of Johnson & Johnson vaccines. We welcome the idea of a block buy across Europe and the element of solidarity that will ensure that everybody gets the vaccine. I accept that the European Union, in allowing exports, also allows for other places to be vaccinated. I would like to home in on Mr. Breton's work as a vaccine hunter, which is a nickname I commend him on as it is one I would not mind having. We talk about the huge number of vaccines that had been exported. At the end of March, that figure was around 77 million doses. We had a stash, for want of a better term, of AstraZeneca and that was said to be down to the work of Mr. Breton and I commend him on that. I add my voice to those of everyone else in saying that AstraZeneca did seem to engage in fly-boy capitalism. Perhaps the piece of work that Mr. Breton was doing should have kicked into action quicker. Could he give the detail of how that worked? What were his successes?

There is a wider conversation about finding out the absolute capacity that exists within the pharmaceutical industry from the point of view of producing as many vaccines as possible for Europe and the entire world. As has already been said, none of us is safe until all of us are safe. I accept its involvement with COVAX, but has the Commission looked into the likes of the coronavirus treatment acceleration programme, CTAP, and the idea of pharmaceutical companies forgoing, for a fair price, intellectual property and so on, to ensure that we get maximum roll-out? We have been told that roll-out in some parts of the world will not happen until 2023 or 2024. We know the difficulties around strains of the virus. That could have a considerable cost in terms of lives and health but could cost trillions in world trade. We cannot afford not to vaccinate everyone. Will Mr. Breton give me any information he has on that matter?

Will Mr. Breton give me his view on his dealings with the British Government as regards the Irish protocol and where it stands at the moment? I know that nobody is ever certain of where they stand when they are negotiating with a British Government.

I would also like to know the Commission's view on mandatory hotel quarantine, if Mr. Breton has time to reply. He might have to come back to me on that in writing. It seems the Commission may have a difficulty with hotel quarantine. We are, obviously, very worried about different strains of the virus, particularly the B1617 variant from India.

Mr. Thierry Breton

The Deputy has asked many questions. I will try to summarise. I was tasked with this mission on 5 February. Some people have said that we should have started a little earlier. I remind the committee that the world was positively surprised when it realised at the beginning of December that some vaccines were working and required to be approved by our authorities and agencies. That was true of Pfizer at the beginning of December, Moderna at the end of December and AstraZeneca at the end of January. I was tasked in early February. I immediately went to sites to try to see how the ramp-up was going.

As I mentioned, there are 53 sites across Europe. Of course, I did not visit all of them but, together with the team I created for this specific task, I visited many of them. One of my biggest concerns related to the ramp-up having to be done in less than ten months, with some aspects having to be done in six months, which is a significant increase for this industry where it would usually take years to ramp-up in this way. That is why what has been done is very impressive. It was part of the criteria for selecting companies. All the scientific part of the vaccines were developed by biotech or academic teams such as those at BioNTech CureVac, Janssen or Oxford University. They were developed by very small teams which, it is important to remember, were funded by EU money. However, those teams did not have expertise of developing vaccines, which is why we favoured their entering into a partnership with a big pharmaceutical company which could be the one to produce vaccines. It was not easy because some of the companies did not know how to work together.

The second part we had to get right was the supply chain, which was extremely important. Of course, when you ramp up supply chains across a continent so quickly, with so many factories involved, there were instances of tension. The vaccines have between 300 and 500 components, so my biggest fear was whether we would be able to meet the requirements for some of the produce. That is why I immediately contacted Mr. Jeff Zients, my counterpart in the US. I wanted to make sure that we could exchange produce. Even if the United States had an executive order in place relating to the vaccines, I wanted to ensure we could have free co-operation in terms of the supply chain at least to avoid problems in this phase. There were some problems and I had to discuss many issues with the US authorities, but finally it worked more smoothly. We learned how to work together and it worked more smoothly than it did at the beginning. I did not know that some people refer to me as a vaccine hunter. I do not know how to take that.

It is important to state that I am very proud of what I have seen on the ground, with many entrepreneurs, some of whom are competitors, working together to try to find solutions. We ran a very important matchmaking event which we invited all the relevant companies, including those from Ireland, to join. We had two days together. Companies outlined what they could offer or needed. I hate to use this comparison but it is quite like we are at war. Even the companies that were competitors now work together on this common joint objective.

Intellectual property is a very important issue. We need to have this debate but my recommendation is that it should not be opened now because the key for us now is to produce a massive amount of vaccines. This is what we are doing. We should not destabilise the process. We must also make sure that we will be able to deliver enough doses for our partners outside Europe, including in Africa. That is extremely important. If we made the patent available free of charge and linked up with factories in Asia, for example, such as in India or elsewhere, it would take many months or possibly years to adapt the factory lines to produce the vaccines, especially the mRNA vaccines, but also the adenovirus vaccines which are quite complex. That would not solve the current issue. It is something we need to put on the agenda and discuss for the future but, as the person responsible for the vaccine task force and making sure the ramp-up of factories delivers what is needed for us and for the world, I think we are still at war and will prefer to focus on this issue. We will need to discuss the issue of intellectual property in the near future, it is hoped when this pandemic is behind us.

I thank the Commissioner. The next speaker is Senator Martin, to be followed by Deputy-----

Mr. Thierry Breton

I forgot to address the question on the Irish protocol.

I thank the Commissioner for giving freely of his time this morning. It is much appreciated. I detect the collective solidarity of the EU. All present know Mr. Breton is not the Commissioner on behalf of France or Ireland but, rather, the Commissioner on behalf of the EU. We thank him for his valiant efforts to date.

I am appealing to Mr. Breton to be a Commissioner for countries beyond the EU. Will he assure us he is aware the world is divided into haves and have-nots, them and us, and those living in Third World countries feel like fifth-class citizens and like they are at the back of the queue? Will the Commissioner be a leading voice and use his pivotal and influential role to do his utmost in the name of global solidarity? It is necessary to extend the approach from EU solidarity to world solidarity. Is he aware of the divisive fears of many that they will be left behind? Is he acutely aware of that? Does he have a separate task force or division set up to tackle that issue? I know he is working very hard in his influential position to help the less well-off, the poor, the disadvantaged and those who have no voice. Ireland has a voice. The Commissioner has given the committee a very informative presentation on how we are doing in Ireland but our small nation has a brilliant reputation for standing up for the less well-off. Through the years, we have displayed generosity that far exceeds our population size.

My second question relates to the digital age. I know Deputy Howlin and others have touched on this issue. The Commissioner is aware of the vile abuse of ethnic minorities and the disgusting tirade of homophobic abuse on social media. It is so important that connectivity is not abused. What is the greatest facility of this generation has also proven to be one of the most divisive, unsupervised and cowardly ways faceless people can abuse others, sometimes to such an extent that the victims take their own lives. I am convinced this issue will someday be resolved, but I have seen no progress whatsoever in tackling the wanton abuse and aggression on social media, mostly targeted at vulnerable people. When will there be a tangible breakthrough rather than just tinkering at the edges? Will that happen during Mr. Breton's term as Commissioner? I know it is a global issue and it is a big ask, but it is a very important thing to ask. Will he play his role in putting manners on those on social media, for once and for all, as well as the profit-making people who are allowed to do what they want? We cannot trust them and the attempts to tackle them have, to date, clearly failed. When will the EU come together with its partners throughout the world to state that enough is enough? When can we expect the cowardly and faceless persons who propagate this disgusting and vile abuse to be stopped?

My third point-----

We have two more contributors to come in and there are only ten minutes left.

In cognisance of the direction from the Chair, I will leave it at that. I know the time of the Commissioner is precious and that my fellow Oireachtas Members are waiting to come in. I had one other question but I know the Commissioner will come back before the committee in the future. These exercises are so important in the democratic process and feeling part of the EU. I have another question but I will put it off for another day.

I thank the Senator. There were two big items on the agenda for this meeting, namely, the digital transformation and vaccine production, but the issue of vaccination has dominated the discussion, so the Commissioner may wish to appear again before the committee at his convenience to deal with the digital side of things.

Mr. Thierry Breton

I would be delighted to be invited to appear again before the committee. Senator Martin raised two very important topics. The first touched me personally because I am extremely involved in Africa.

It is an important area in respect of the production of vaccines. We are not only working to produce the doses for our African partners and others, but I remind members that we have the capacity to produce over 3 billion doses by the end of the year. Hopefully, we will have a huge stock of vaccines in the second half of year. That is important.

However, it is not enough. We also need to help these countries to develop their own capacity to produce vaccines and to enable them to meet the needs of their citizens. From that perspective, last week I had a long conversation with the President of Senegal, Mr. Macky Sall, who will be President of the African Union next year. We decided to start looking into the development of a large vaccine factory, hopefully in Senegal. Senegal has a long history of developing vaccines at the Pasteur Institute of Dakar. We are working to find the right tools to do this very quickly. Of course, we all understand that it is our mission to help everyone during this pandemic and also to prepare for the next one. Unfortunately, with between 8 billion and 10 billion inhabitants on our planet, there may be, and probably will be, another pandemic. That is why we are doing this work.

The Irish Government has a very strong relationship with the US President, particularly at the moment. I understand that he likes Ireland. Perhaps it would be a good idea for the Irish Government to use its influence, which is considerable. Having lived in the US for many years, I know that the influence of the Irish Government is significant there, particularly at present. The Government could use its influence in the US to gain access to vaccine stocks. It would help us and help me in my task.

On the digital transformation, I am acutely aware of what is happening on social media. It allows me to reply to the first question asked. First, I agree that we must work together and do something with our partners around the world. Second, our December proposal highlighted that what is not accepted offline should not be allowed online either. That is extremely important. Third, social media platforms must step up their efforts. The proposed EU rules will place new obligations on these platforms. We will supervise and sanction violations. Fourth, only a European instrument will be effective in addressing the issues that have been raised.

As I stated after the events on Capitol Hill in January 2021, it should not be for private companies to take arbitrary decisions. Incidentally, the proposal that has been put on the table would have made such events impossible. I asserted as much in an op-ed. There must be a democratically validated framework which should be respected by all parties. That is what the Digital Services Act is precisely about. We have been the first to move on this issue. Obviously, I would like to be able to tell the committee that we will discuss it with our friends in the US and that discussions are already under way, but the reality is that we are ahead of the curve and leading the process. Before presenting the proposal and placing it in the hands of the co-legislators, we undertook a significant consultation exercise. It is my style of working. Some 3,000 contributions were received, with many coming from the US and other countries. It was a year after the consultation that we presented the proposal. Does that mean that we are one year ahead of the US in that respect? Probably, yes. However, we share the same values and issues. Therefore, it is a good opportunity for further co-operation.

I thank the Commissioner. I wonder how solúbhta or flexible he is with his time. There are three more members who have indicated that they wish to speak.

Mr. Thierry Breton

Unfortunately, I need to leave at 11:45 a.m.

The Commissioner is very good to give us an extra five minutes. If members are specific with their questions, all three will be answered. First, I call Deputy Brady, followed by Deputy Duffy.

I thank the Commissioner for joining us this morning. First, I wish to make a comment, and it is not a throw-away one from my perspective, which is that nobody is safe until everyone has access to safe and effective treatments and vaccines. In other words, no one is safe until everyone is safe. We must absolutely mean that.

I welcome the Commissioner's commitment that there will be enough vaccines to vaccinate 70% of our population by mid-July. However, I note his previous comment that he was trusting less in companies in honouring their commitments. I would like to ask him specifically whether those comments solely relate to AstraZeneca or if there are more general concerns around the commitments from the large pharmaceutical companies.

I also wish to ask about alternative vaccines and the work that is being done in terms of vaccines being produced in China and the Sputnik V vaccine, and where work is at in terms of looking at those alternative vaccines. Certainly, they seem to be very effective. I note that some European countries are accessing them. I would like to hear the Commissioner's views on that.

I also want to make reference to a call from a number of former presidents, prime ministers and Nobel laureates in respect of the TRIPS waiver, which waives certain intellectual property rights. A number of members have already touched upon the issue. I believe it was yesterday that the EU foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, tweeted his support for waiving some intellectual property rights. He quickly deleted his tweet, which was quite surprising. However, I have a copy with me. He stated: "at one point, scaling up vaccination efforts by waiving intellectual property rights will be needed to globally combat [the] Covid-19 pandemic."

We are all genuinely concerned about new variants in Ireland. Yesterday, three cases of the "Indian", or B1617, variant were detected in Ireland. Until people are vaccinated globally, there remains a serious concern about the emergence of new variants.

I note that in a recent article written by the Commissioner, he stated: "I would remind you that the companies have invested a lot and very quickly, which has enabled us to have vaccines in a few months when it usually takes several years." While that may be the case, public funding has also gone into these large pharmaceutical companies. I note that in respect of the one company about which the Commissioner has expressed concerns, namely, AstraZeneca, around €336 million in public money was pumped into that pharmaceutical company to develop and help with the production of the vaccine. How much public money from Europe has gone into the pharmaceutical companies in the development of the vaccines?

I also wish to ask the Commissioner about the waiving of intellectual property rights. I sit on another Oireachtas Committee, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. We have seen evidence, and it is widely acknowledged, that the cost of accessing vaccines in developing countries, for example, in Africa, is double that which EU member states are being charged.

I question whether the Union is concerned about dealing with this pandemic globally or is more interested in serving the needs of the large pharmaceutical companies and the profits they are making. I fundamentally believe that there should be no profit from the pandemic. Looking at this when the pandemic is over too late. This needs to be done now. I ask the Commissioner, the EU and the Government to sign up to initiatives such as CTAP and deal with intellectual property rights.

The Commissioner has been generous in giving us an extra five minutes. There are five questions remaining. We do not have time for individual questions. I will get specific questions from Deputy Duffy and Senator Keogan. Perhaps Senator Chambers wants to come in. I will then revert to the Commissioner, and he can have the final say and decide when he has to leave.

I thank the Commissioner. Will the setback with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine delivery impact on the EU target of vaccinating 70% of adults by mid-May?

How far are we from a digital euro currency?

Vaccines have been covered quite well. I refer to the vision for Europe's digital transformation. Could the Commissioner touch on the priority around secure, resilient and sustainable digital infrastructure, in particular secure infrastructure? It will be a major concern for every member state to ensure those services are protected and they want to know how Europe intends to do that across every member state.

I will give the Commissioner the final word. I have a specific question. Many major pharmaceutical companies are based here and have a significant presence in Ireland. Is anything we in Ireland can do to support the European and global vaccine effort? The Commissioner can try to answer those nine questions as best he can.

Mr. Thierry Breton

I thank the Chairman. I have three minutes and will try to do my best.

On the Chairman's question, we know and appreciate the industrial landscape in Ireland is extremely important and pharmaceutical companies were present at our networking event. If there is any need, I am in personal contact with the Prime Minister. Sometimes it helps if we can have more information. I have a lot of support from the Government. The key is to say to the industry that we appreciate what it does. We will of course offer many companies the opportunity to be part of our strategy. We need to continue working on that.

On the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we await the EMA assessment of the efficacy of the vaccine, which I have no doubt will arrive. I am not in charge of health and have no information from the EMA. Without Johnson & Johnson, we will have fewer vaccines in quarter 2 than hoped. I am confident that enough vaccines can be produced to reach our target of vaccinating 70% of the adult population by July. As the committee understands, we have some room for manoeuvre.

On the first question, I am confident that AstraZeneca will be able to deliver a reduced amount. I remind the committee that the figure went from 180 million in its first commitment to 170 million. These vaccines are of course included in our forecast. I am working on it every day. We have a very large and broad portfolio of vaccines, which makes me confident that we will be able to reach our 70% target.

I will say a word on the other vaccines. Soon five vaccines will have been accepted. I mentioned CureVac which, it is to be hoped, will be agreed on by the end of May or June. It takes a lot of time to be accepted because we are extremely strict with our health regulations. We do not have anything against anybody. We are professionals and it is because of that that we do not try to play politics with vaccines. It is always a bad idea to do that.

Sputnik is another vaccine and I have a lot of respect for Russian scientists, especially in the Gamaleya Research Institute, which is very well known. Like every other vaccine, they need to apply to the EMA, which was done a few weeks ago. The process usually takes a few months because it is very serious and advocates for everyone. It will take a few months for the vaccine to be analysed and approved by the EMA. It could then take another few months - sometimes it takes between ten and 12 months - to be able to have the facility to manufacture it. We know that all our facilities have been transformed over the past ten to 12 months to be able to follow the needs of our fellow citizens. If the Sputnik vaccine is approved by the EMA, it will enter into an industrial process phase, which will take another ten months. When the facility is up and running to manufacture a vaccine, it takes between 70 and 100 days to do so. Every preorder for Sputnik or any other vaccine cannot be delivered before the end of this year. There is another story for all of us. We said, of course, that we welcome everyone but we know our priorities. Sinovac is the Chinese vaccine. There were some difficulties with it in Chile, for example.

I discussed IT. There is absolutely no issue. It is something we need to discuss, but it is a matter of priorities. We believe, along with my colleague, High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell Fontelles, that there will come a time when we will need to appeal the decision. As we said in life, and especially in such a fight, it is a case of everything at a time. I thank the Chairman and the members.

Ar son an choiste, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gCoimisinéir as ucht an ama agus as ucht a bheith páirteach sa díospóireacht inniu.

I thank the Commissioner for being part of this debate today. On behalf of the committee, I thank him for his engagement.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.49 a.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 27 April 2021.