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Can the EU get its vaccine programme back on track?

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen leaves after a meeting of the members of the European Council focused the roll-out of vaccines - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

PAUL KNOTT on the reasons behind Brussels’ stuttering vaccine rollout.

Alarm bells are ringing loud across the European Union about the slow rollout of its Covid-19 vaccinations. Brussels opted for a characteristically centralised vaccine process in order to reduce tensions between countries, but may have ended up inadvertently stoking them.

The original decisions that partly caused this unsteady start were based on a desire to avoid ‘vaccine nationalism’ and preserve public confidence in the rapidly developed inoculations. This reasoning was widely accepted at the time and the situation remains recoverable. But the European public is becoming more impatient as delays and administrative failings increasingly come to light.

Early in the vaccine development process, EU leaders decided to centralise the procurement and distribution of vaccines with the European Commission in Brussels. Their aim was to maximise efficiency by having one agency deal with the vaccine producing companies, rather than a cacophony of 27 different member states.

The largely unspoken motivation that also underpinned this approach was to avoid a repeat of the unseemly scramble for personal protective and other medical equipment which broke out when the pandemic first hit the continent last spring. This saw EU partner countries competing against each other to acquire essential supplies and the hardest hit nations, notably Italy, running short of them at a crucial time.

The resentments that this bout of unhealthy, and for some people deadly, competition provoked struck at the heart of the EU’s reason for existence – to replace destructive competition between European nations with mutually beneficial cooperation. Reasonably enough, the EU’s leaders sought to learn the lesson and avoid any repeat when the means to end the pandemic arrived.

More questions began to be asked around the turn of the year when various non-EU countries began their vaccination programmes before Europe. The official response cited the exceptional rigor of the European approval process for new medicines, which would necessitate a slightly later release date for the vaccines than in some places.

The implication was that countries such as China, Russia, the US and UK might be cutting corners in their safety review processes. Such hints seemed plausible to many, given the standards of governance those countries have recently displayed. And, yes, fairly or unfairly, it is the case that many on the continent, having watched the last four years of Brexit-induced turmoil in Britain, do put the UK – along with Trump’s US – in that category of countries where procedures and politicians are not fully trusted. (And it is unfair in this case, since there is no evidence of any corner-cutting in the UK’s vaccine deployment.)

Another unacknowledged motivation also appears to lie behind the cautious European approach to vaccine approval – the fear that vaccine-scepticism spread by a noisy minority could cause insufficient public take-up of the jabs, potentially leading to a failure to halt the pandemic.

Whatever the precise merits of these various explanations for the delays, they are not unreasonable, even if they are frustrating and having an ominous impact on the public health situation. But over recent days the issues surrounding the Union’s stalled vaccine rollout have begun to mount. One problem is that the Brussels appears to be relying too heavily on one vaccine producer, AstraZeneca. The company has informed the EU that it is unlikely to fulfil its entire 80 million dose pre-order on time, due to problems “related to materials sourcing and manufacturing at a plant in Belgium”. Pascal Soriot, its chief executive, has robustly defended his company from European criticism, saying the EU’s late decision to sign contracts – three months after the UK – had meant limited time to sort out supply hiccups.

Other issues being cited for causing delays include excessive bureaucracy in some countries, such as France’s consent requirements from each person to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, other vaccines being developed in Europe have had setbacks. France’s Pasteur Institute has abandoned its version while Sanofi, from the same country, said last month that its jab would not be ready until the end of 2021.

Aside from the justifiably immense pressures generated by ongoing high infection and death rates, further disquiet is being caused by comparisons with places that are performing rather better. The world leader, Israel, was initially regarded by Europe as an admirable outlier. But that notion is discredited now that Israel has vaccinated ten times more citizens per 100 of population than even the best performing parts of the EU.

Given that Israel is a country of similar size, wealth and healthcare standards to many EU member states, the question is why it is so far ahead in the numbers of those vaccinated and what this says about the EU’s competence.

And any lingering European complacency has now been completely shaken by the news that the UK is vaccinating its citizens at roughly double the rate of the EU. The tone of reporting this across Europe is a backhanded compliment to Britain that highlights the damage done by Brexit and the Boris Johnson government to its reputation – essentially, “we must be doing badly if even Britain is doing better”.

An extreme example of this perception appeared in the atrociously inaccurate report published in the German business newspaper Handelsblatt earlier this week, claiming that the AstraZeneca vaccine was only 8% effective in older people. The report was subsequently dismissed by the German Ministry of Health, which said the paper had mixed-up some very different statistics. The paper appeared to have muddled up the efficacy rate for over-65s with the number of seniors involved in AstraZeneca’s trials, where they made up 8% of participants.

The blame for this potentially dangerous report that could have discredited the vaccine itself lies entirely with the newspaper concerned. But it’s worth reflecting that the reason it briefly gained traction in Europe was rooted in the AstraZeneca vaccine’s rapid development and its approval being associated with the once-respected, but now widely derided Britain.

Nonetheless, the reality for the EU is that Britain (albeit with longer-term caveats about its single initial dose and delayed booster strategy) really is doing better with its vaccine rollout.

The big question facing the EU now is how it is going to get its vaccination programme back on track. One worrying suggestion for external countries represents a different form of vaccine nationalism to another internal scramble between individual EU member states. The European Commission is reportedly considering enforcing export controls on vaccines manufactured in the EU (as many of them are, including the Pfizer/BioNTech one, as well as AstraZeneca’s). This would compel them to be supplied to the EU first, potentially causing shortages elsewhere and triggering a dangerous international battle over vaccine supplies.

It must be hoped that the Commission is sufficiently concerned for Europe’s own global reputation to reject that ugly proposal and focused on rectifying its own administrative failures instead.

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