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When the European Union launched its vaccination campaign three months ago, all 27 member countries officially began on the same day, a move designed to showcase their unity as they fought back against Covid-19. That gesture of confident camaraderie now feels quaint as EU countries tie themselves in knots over a bungled vaccine rollout. Each week seems to bring a new setback in the jab plans, with delivery delays, safety scares and flubbed administration all combining to slow down the EU’s overall programme.
Vaccination rates across the EU are a fraction of those in Britain, and way behind where the bloc had hoped to be at this stage. The EU has jabbed just 13 out of 100 people while Britain’s equivalent figure is 45, and the US is on 38. The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, still says that 70% of adults can be fully vaccinated by the end of summer, but at this pace it will be well into 2022 when the EU reaches its target.
As EU leaders gather on Thursday for another summit to figure their way out of their mess, officials have lighted on a new wheeze to help them speed up the process: controlling vaccine exports to countries like Britain and the US. “We want to see reciprocity and proportionality in exports, and we are ready to use whatever tool we need to deliver on that,” said Von der Leyen.
There is brutal simplicity in the logic. The EU has so far exported 34m Covid-19 vaccine doses, including 10m to the UK, whose smug triumphalism about its rollout has an added sting in the already febrile post-Brexit era. These numbers have incensed people across the EU as they imagine the bloc leaching doses to everyone else. One official warned that the bloc shouldn’t be the pandemic’s “useful idiot” while others hoard and hide vaccines.
Britain does not export any vaccines, and it craftily wrote clauses into its contract with the vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca to be served ahead of everyone else. As for the US, it prioritises domestic orders by drawing on the 70-year-old Defence Production Act, granting it extraordinary powers over manufacturing in times of crisis. Why can’t the EU also use the tools at its disposal?
The argument for a more assertive EU policy gets louder when the travails with AstraZeneca are raised. The Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant has only delivered 30m of its promised 120m doses, and yet continues to provide uninterrupted supply to Britain, even sourcing from plants in the EU.
The case, however, becomes a little murkier when other aspects of the EU’s vaccine rollout, which have little to do with exports, are considered. Crucially the EU was too slow to commit itself to suppliers last year. When it did, the joint €2.7bn pot to secure 2.3bn doses was too low – the US had a purse of $18bn for its Operation Warp Speed vaccine programme.
The EU also spent too much time haggling over the wrong issues, like pricing and liabilities, rather than supply and timing, a misplaced strategy that even the unabashed federalist MEP Guy Verhofstadt calls “a fiasco”. The EU approach now looks naive. Last year’s scramble was not a buyer’s market. Speed was of the essence as countries vied for priority access in the vaccine queue.
These hitches go some way to explaining why the EU was already behind when it finally began its rollout last December.
A number of European countries also face much higher levels of vaccine scepticism, feeding the risk-averse regulatory approach. Anti-vaxxer sentiment is particularly hostile to the AstraZeneca jab, with millions of doses now lying unused in storage.
Earlier this month, concerns of a link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots led to many countries briefly pausing its use, before the European Medicines Agency declared that its benefits outweighed its risks. A recent survey by YouGov showed that fewer than half of Spaniards, Italians, French and Germans thought the vaccine was safe. Ironically, the EU thundering for a fair share of AstraZeneca jabs comes as fewer Europeans actually want it.
AstraZeneca is hardly helping with its confusing efficiency data. The EU’s caution was mirrored in the US this week, whose watchdog suggested AstraZeneca was cherrypicking trial data. The company needs to be clearer about the millions of doses produced at the Helix plant in the Netherlands or the Anagni plant in Italy. The debacle over 29m doses at the Italian factory show how fraught things have become on all sides.
This explains the context for the European commission’s plans to curb vaccine exports, targeting companies and countries that officials say are not playing fair. It rests on an understandable exasperation about the state of the vaccine rollout and a sense that Europeans are being played by devious countries.
But an export ban would be a ham-fisted response to an already wretched predicament. The EU has been complacent, but it should also own its missteps and find better ways to redress the situation.
Vaccines have complex raw-material supply chains, and some come from the countries the EU is targeting, like Britain. An export ban may at best gain about a week for the EU, but at worst, it would spark a tit-for-tat retaliation, hurting everyone. This week Micheál Martin, Ireland’s taoiseach, described such an approach as retrograde: “Once you start putting up barriers, other people start putting up barriers globally.” Pfizer’s vaccine needed 280 materials from 86 suppliers in 19 countries, he said.
Instead of blame-shifting, the EU should focus on improving domestic production. There is some good news on this score. The EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, expects nearly 400m jabs in the next quarter, mostly from Pfizer (200m), with a further 55m from Johnson & Johnson and 35m from Moderna. Building up domestic supply will be critical in the longer term, when the EU needs boosters to deal with variants.
In the meantime, the EU needs to hold its nerve. The skittish mood is throwing up many bad ideas about how to speed up the vaccine rollout, and this is spooking people further. The promised return to normalcy is taking longer than planned – but if EU leaders make the wrong move, it could drag on for longer still.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: An EU ban on vaccine exports would make its wretched rollout take longer still | European Union