By JAMIE SPRATT
It is no secret that the EU has massively underperformed with its vaccination programme. There is a rare consensus among the media, almost unanimous, that this is the case. A cursory glance at the statistics paints a clear picture: in terms of doses given per 100 residents, the UK is at 59.3, the US at 55.4, and Israel at a staggering 113.0. In comparison, the EU is at a meagre 21.0.
So what exactly has happened here? In the EU a decision was taken relatively early on in the pandemic to centralise the procurement and distribution of vaccines rather than leaving member states to pursue their own programmes.
This herculean task of negotiating vaccine deals for 448 million people in 27 independent member-states, lay at the feet of the relatively inexperienced European Medicines Agency (EMA). This EU body usually has the task of approving new drugs and the job of ‘complementing’ Member-states’ health and medicine services. Before the COVID-19 pandemic there was no precedent for such centralised decision-making regarding health - the Eurocrats responsible found themselves in very unfamiliar territory. These EU diplomats did not have the necessary experience in negotiating such massive deals, especially ones with such gravity (lives were quite literally on the line).
It is perhaps not surprising then to observe the woefully slow pace the EMA moved at during last Summer. The Economist, in their briefing on this topic, pointed to a very telling statistic. During normal times, there would be around 300 meetings between national diplomats a month regarding the EU’s various dealings: During August 2020, there were only ten meetings. There was even a summit held on August 19, whose agenda included Mali, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Belarus – vaccines were not on the agenda.
August turned out to be a pivotal month in the bidding race for vaccines. There was possibly an air of false confidence in the EU circles at this time, with conflicting advice between scientists on the possibility of a second wave. Alas, the EMA’s sluggish pace in their negotiations led to them ordering their jabs for AstraZeneca 3 months after the UK had finalised its deal. They ordered them too late, leaving them at the back of the queue. Additionally, a lot of hope rode on the success of the French Sanofi vaccine, so it was very unwelcome news to hear they had run into problems with their clinical trials.
It would be fair to assume that vaccine distribution is a zero-sum game – there are winners and losers; if the EU had been quicker to act than (say) the UK, their positions would be reversed right now. However, that is not necessarily the case. Government investment into these various vaccine producers and manufacturers act not only as down-payments for the potential vaccines, but the money is used to fund the all-important research, such as the brilliant work done at Oxford University. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, had the EU invested a lot more, either the vaccines would have been produced at a faster pace or more vaccines would have been successful. The culture of fiscal responsibility within Eurocrat circles has been hugely counter-intuitive on this issue, with their total investment being a tiny proportion of the massive economic damage and lost production caused by lockdowns (which are likely to continue during this third wave).
Who is at fault, then? A lot of fingers are pointing to the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. This does seem slightly unjust, as all the blame so far seems to lie with structural inefficiencies and overly bureaucratic bodies than with a single person. It was a poor decision to centralise the vaccine rollout – European leaders prioritised protecting a certain narrative about the EU over vaccine acquisition. No one wanted to make the tough decision of letting the wealthier, developed nations of France and Germany take the lead, for risk of being seen as acting as ‘vaccine nationalists’. They instead put the emphasis on a well-meaning but ultimately futile sense of solidarity – every EU member state has suffered from completely avoidable deaths.
Some integrationists are worried that this is a turning point in the story of the EU. The debacle of centralised vaccine procurement is powerful evidence that some areas of society should be left to the nation-state. The EU consists of 27 independent nation-states with different cultures, economies, and political systems – only an idealist would strive for a United Federal States of Europe. However, as with most things, there is nuance to this debate: The Next Generation EU (NGEU) is an economic recovery fund from the pandemic put together by the EU Commission. This will certainly be a very interesting case study to follow in the coming months.
In much a similar way that the UK has changed its COVID-19 narrative from an initially poor response to a world-class vaccine rollout, the EU now has the opportunity to change the focus from a terrible vaccine procurement strategy that has cost lives, to a world-class joint investment programme that could revitalise the stagnating Southern countries such as Italy and Greece. There are already signs of slow movement, but time will tell how this plays out.
Image: Unsplash (Daniel Schludi)