Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, puts on a protective face mask during a news … [+]
The surge in coronavirus infections across a large part of the European continent is relentless. And it’s not just cases that are increasing. Hospitalizations, along with ICU usage, are rising, too. Fueled by the B.1.1.7 Covid-19 variant, the latest wave has forced authorities across the E.U. to reinstitute lockdowns, or reinforce existing ones. This jeopardizes a return to near-normal later this year.
Relaxing mitigation measures too soon in some countries has contributed to the current wave. But, a poorly managed vaccination rollout throughout most of the E.U. has exacerbated the problem. Adjusted for population, Britain and the U.S. have administered around three times as many doses as France and Germany.
Vaccine supply issues are to blame, including tardy purchase orders, inadequate numbers of doses ordered, and insufficient production capability. In addition, on the demand side, Europe has a major vaccine hesitancy problem, which has further been compounded by the recent trials and tribulations associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The European Commission runs the joint vaccination procurement program, which was endorsed by all E.U. governments last June. This program allows the E.U. to negotiate purchase of vaccines on behalf of its member states. The Commission has maintained that this helps reduce costs and avoid competition among member countries.
Member states do not have to join the scheme, but all 27 E.U. countries chose to do so last year. Individual countries may still sign separate agreements with vaccine suppliers. In light of shortages, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have done just that with Russia and China.
In December 2020, four months after the U.S. and U.K. had signed agreements with Pfizer-BioNTech, the European Commission inked a deal for 300 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. But subsequent production issues delayed shipments. In January, the E.U. doubled its order to 600 million doses and the French company Sanofi has agreed to assist with manufacturing the vaccines.
Ostensibly, the European Commission’s goal was to create a “fair and affordable” system. Though more affordable in terms of price per vaccine dose, it turned out to be a penny wise, pound foolish proposition, especially when availability wasn’t secured in a timely manner. As New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote, the E.U. was “not just risk averse, but averse to the wrong risks.” The biggest risk the penny-pinching European Commission perceived in June 2020 was spending too much money upfront – before emergency use authorization – on vaccines that may not get approval. But, the risk which the Commission evidently overlooked was that the E.U. could fall badly behind in vaccinations and lose lives to Covid-19 unnecessarily. According to a French analysis, for people aged 50 and above, every 100,000 vaccines that are delayed by just one day will result in 15 deaths.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has come under intense criticism for the mishandled vaccine rollout. To her credit, von der Leyen has acknowledged the E.U.’s vaccine rollout failures. In February, she said: “We were late to authorize. We were too optimistic when it came to mass production and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.”
And this month, she lamented that “Britain is like a speedboat, while the E.U. is a tanker.” Surely Brexiteers are gloating, as this doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of the European project, at least not on the vaccination front.
In attempting to rectify the situation, the European Commission is resorting to drastic measures. This week, it broached the idea of considering additional measures to secure vaccine supplies for all member states, including the potential use of emergency powers that would allow it to effectively seize control of production and distribution and block exports, to, among other countries, the U.K.
A few days ago, von der Leyen tweeted that although the “start was tough we’re making progress on vaccination.” She cited Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna “delivering on their contracts,” and pointed to the arrival in April of Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Von der Leyen went on to say “we can achieve our target to have 70% of adults fully vaccinated by the end of summer.”
Maybe that goal can be met. But that’s at least four months after the U.K. will have achieved the target, and three months after the U.S. And frankly, given the slow pace of vaccinations, the objective may not even be feasible, certainly not for the E.U. as a whole. On average, E.U. countries are still lagging behind markedly, administering vaccines less than half as rapidly as the U.S. and U.K.
The mismanaged deployment of vaccines threatens to keep countries across the E.U. in varying states of lockdown, with businesses closed for possibly months to come. The periodic lifting of lockdowns only to reimpose them later has further demoralized a population yearning for at least near-normalcy, which unfortunately looks less and less likely in the near future.
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