A Red Cross volunteer prepares the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in southwest France.
Bob Edme / Associated Press
It’s hard to imagine a current fiasco that can keep up with the introduction of Covid vaccines in the European Union. Protectionism, mercantilism, bureaucratic ineptitude, lack of political accountability, crippling securityism – it’s all here. The Keystone Kops in Brussels and the European capitals would be fun if the consequences weren’t so severe.
But hospitalizations and deaths are rising again in Italy, Germany and France, while successful vaccinations suppress disease and deaths in the US, UK and Israel. So far, the US has given 34 doses per 100 population, the UK 40 and Israel 111. Most vaccines require two doses. Compare that to about 12 in France, Germany, and Italy.
As the pandemic reopens, Europe’s mistakes will cost the rest of the world an economic cost as the continent struggles to end the lockdown.
Take the latest fumble first. Various European regulators and politicians have spent this week claiming the Oxford /.
The vaccine – the only one that is currently widely used in the EU – may be unsafe just to rethink and now ask people to accept it.
This time the concern was that the bite was causing blood clotting or platelet problems in some patients. Some people who received the vaccine developed blood clots, but the European Medicines Agency (EMA) noted that the vaccine was not associated with an increase in the overall risk.
Of the approximately 11 million blood clots vaccinated in the UK, serious blood clots were less common than would be expected in the general population. People can develop clots for many reasons, including other health conditions and medications. Covid-19 can also cause blood clots, so any risk-benefit calculation favors vaccination.
This is a piece with a clearly European safety feeling that has followed the vaccination program from the start. The introduction of the AstraZeneca sting was also held up after EMA approval, as bureaucrats in Germany claimed there was no evidence that it worked in patients over 65.
Fewer elderly patients were sampled during the vaccine trial phase, but that is as far as the truth of the claim went. It was quickly refuted – real evidence, already available then from the UK, showed high effectiveness in the older cohort – but not before French President Emmanuel Macron took up the issue.
Such negligent conversations have deterred vulnerable older Europeans from accepting the vaccine last month. Priority lists were also skewed. Younger teachers and university professors in Italy were given jabs in front of the sick and the elderly under a program developed when officials claimed the shot would not work for the elderly.
One problem is that no one seems to be responsible for overseeing safety and effectiveness. Nominally, that’s the EMA’s job, and the agency treated it with typically Eurocratic self-confidence. The EMA approval process is more bureaucratic and requires contributions from all EU Member States. Imagine if the FDA had consulted all 50 states.
National governments are also allowed to make their own security decisions in an emergency. The UK used this option to approve the
and AstraZeneca is shooting fast, despite being a member of the EU late last year.
Other governments used this discretion to slow down vaccines. EU capitals refused to follow the UK in granting emergency clearance, apparently for fear of undermining European solidarity. However, some governments were happy to unilaterally block the vaccine, as was the case with the AstraZeneca clot kerfuffle. European regulators live by the maxim “Better safe than sorry”, but in this case they get the apology with no extra safe.
At least now there are millions of cans available for Europeans who want them. This wasn’t always the case after procurement errors delayed deliveries and almost sparked several trade wars. Brussels officials took the opportunity last year to promote joint vaccine procurement to strengthen the EU’s credibility with European voters. The purchase on behalf of 500 million Europeans should also give the bloc more leverage over pharmaceutical companies.
It was chaos. The EU bureaucracy has little experience with procurement on this scale and has also had difficulty reaching block-wide agreements for ventilators and protective equipment. Brussels officials signed vaccination contracts months after the US and UK last year – and only after some European governments threatened to organize their own procurement.
Washington and London understand that to bulk procurement, throwing large amounts of R&D money at many companies in the hopes that some would work is critical. Brussels focused on reducing the cost per dose. Europeans pay a few dollars less per dose but ended up at the end of the shipping line.
The EU’s response – a combination of looming export restrictions, loud trade disputes with pharmaceutical companies and sour grapes swaying over concerns about imaginary effectiveness – has mainly undermined Europe’s credibility on trade issues. There is also a risk that vaccine nationalism and trade restrictions will be fueled elsewhere.
Could things have been different? The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed demonstrated how a large government can use its fiscal resources to fund R&D in a crisis. The UK and Israel have shown that small countries can use the agility of the regulations to move forward. But somehow the European Union – a continent-wide political bloc made up of smaller nation-states – managed to achieve the worst of both worlds. It suffers from the cumbersome bureaucracy of a large government and the contentious inefficiency of a small one.
Europeans are free to debate who is responsible and how to prevent it from happening again. The rest of the world can only hope that they will be vaccinated together soon.
Potomac Watch: Instead of reopening the classrooms, the new president relies on the work of his predecessor. Image: Oliver Contreras / Zuma Press
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Published in the print edition on March 20, 2021.