In October 2020, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said the 27 countries had 'access to the most promising vaccines under development,' adding that it was a 'European achievement.' Six months later, Europe is once more heading towards general lockdown, after having missed its vaccine strategy.
The EU will struggle to meet its goal of vaccinating 70% of the population by summer. According to Our World in Data, a database from the University of Oxford, less than 10% of Germans, French and Italians have received their first dose of the vaccine. By comparison, 41% of Britons, 23% of Americans and 40% of Israelis have already received it.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Europe has climbed in recent weeks, heralding a third wave. In France, the number of new daily cases per million inhabitants rose from 260 in January to 430 in late March, according to Our World in Data. France, Italy and Germany have once again been forced to strengthen their health measures. Europeans are stranded at home, and millions of jobs, especially in the tourism sector, are at risk.
So how could Europe have failed so badly? There are three reasons for this disaster: slow negotiations, vaccine supply problems and sometimes confusing and inconsistent public health messages.
Effective vaccine deployment begins with securing supply. The EU has been slower than the UK, US and Israel in this crucial step. The European Commission was determined to get vaccines at a low price—and it did so, paying less than $15 (£11) per dose of Pfizer's vaccine, for example. The UK and US each pay around £9 per dose for all vaccines. Israel paid more and also offered Pfizer the data of its citizens.
But the slow EU negotiations have caused it to fall behind in obtaining vaccines. Negotiations were also slowed down because its 27 member countries have different laws regarding the procedure to be adopted in case of failure of this medication. Europe therefore started distributing them later than other countries in the world. The European Union began rolling out its vaccination strategy with Pfizer on December 27, nearly three weeks after the UK, two weeks after the US and just over a week after Israel.
Disappointed with suppliers
The European Commission ended up making billions of dose deals with multiple pharmaceutical companies—enough for its member countries to cover more than double their population, according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracking system. But the institution faced vaccine shortages in January. Pfizer temporarily slowed production to modernize its European factories, France only received a quarter of its Moderna supply due to delays. And to top it off, AstraZeneca cut its initial supply by 60%, from 80 million to 30 million doses, due to production issues.
These delays have prompted Hungary to procure 2 million doses of Sputnik V in Russia and one million doses of Sinopharm in China in an attempt to quickly vaccinate its population. Hungary has inoculated at least one dose of serum to more than 24% of its citizens according to Our World in Data, a higher percentage than any other European country. The use of these two products is not yet authorized in the European Union, but each country can choose to authorize its own vaccines.
To make matters worse, the 27 continued to export doses, despite the shortages. In January, the Commission cleared all exports until the end of March—a temporary measure that has since been extended until June. European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič said on Tuesday that from the end of January until March 16, the EU had approved exports totalling 41.5 million doses to 33 countries, out of 70 million doses delivered within the EU, of which 52 million were administered. The Commission blocked only one delivery of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca from Italy to Australia.
'It is difficult to explain to our citizens why vaccines produced in the EU are sent to other countries,' admitted Ursula Von der Leyen on March 17. Europe has threatened to block exports of any vaccine to countries that do not share part of their stock. The President of the European Commission reminded on Thursday that more than 10 million doses of Pfizer had been exported to the United Kingdom, but that no dose had travelled the other way.
More than 14.2 million available doses have not been administered, according to the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are probably specific to individual countries, rather than to the European Commission itself. Many people are still hesitant to get the COVID vaccine, in part because of conflicting public health messages about vaccines, including that of AstraZeneca.
Although the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has given its authorization for the vaccine, some countries, including France and Germany, did not initially administer it to people over 65, citing insufficient data for this age range. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would not get the vaccine because she was 66. Both countries have since reversed their decision.
AstraZeneca's reputation was further damaged by an investigation into blood clots as a potential side effect. The EMA promised the vaccine was safe and effective, but a YouGov poll on Monday found that only 23% of French people, for example, trust the AstraZeneca, up from 33% in January.
A new pandemic
EU leaders said in unison on Friday that they would urgently prioritize the production and distribution of vaccines. They urged pharmaceutical companies to respect their commitments. 'We stress the importance of transparency,' they added.
The problem must be resolved urgently. Angela Merkel announced on Tuesday that the situation was 'serious' and that the country was entering 'a new pandemic.'
The number of cases is increasing exponentially and the intensive care units are filling up again.