A major focus of 2021 across the globe has been quick and efficient COVID-19 vaccine distribution to save lives, restore order in economies and resume some resemblance of our previous lifestyles. The EU, esteemed as a world leader, however, is far behind other nations, such as the US and UK, in vaccination numbers and rates, even when Nordic EU countries have been leading in implementing effective measures at slowing rates of COVID-19 infection.
Geopolitical differences between the twenty-seven member states and disunity have delayed contract signing with pharmaceutical companies, resulting in lagging and insufficient vaccine deliveries. The goal of herd immunity can be expected soon in the summer of 2021 in the US and UK, however if the EU does not increase its vaccination rate, it may take until the end of 2021, and the implications of this delay will certainly be at the expense of lives and economy.
Beginning with current vaccination numbers, distribution numbers range from countries a low 748,000 in Switzerland to 5.9 million in Germany and 4.3 million in France, at the highest levels. Comparing to the UK, which is currently leading in vaccination in Europe, they have already distributed 19.9 million vaccines, nearly 300% more than Germany, even with a lower population.
An explanation for this slow rollout process is the late authorization of vaccine purchasing. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) did not approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine until three weeks after the UK and US did, due to the more difficult process of having all twenty-seven member states providing input for vaccine approval, waiting to see if the vaccines were reliable. Even further behind, the EU European Commission did not agree on a contract with AstraZeneca until August of 2020, 3 months following the UK´s deal in May of 2020. This meant that the EU could not secure contractual supplies of the Pfizer vaccine until November of 2020, whereas the US and UK put pen to contracts during the summer of 2020.
Additionally, there has been inexplicitness within the AstraZeneca contract itself, with no clear delivery commitments and no recognizable penalties for delays in supply. This very issue is still occurring now in early March of 2021, with a failure of AstraZeneca to deliver the promised 90 million doses by the end of the first quarter, having now only delivered 40 million.
With this delay along with the broken promises of vaccines being delivered by early Spring, many EU countries are now encountering the issue that there simply are not enough vaccines available in the EU to supply its population of 446 million and reach herd immunity of at least 70% as quickly as previously planned. Initially, the EU did not purchase enough vaccine doses, and it was not until just mid-February of 2021 that the EU secured 350 million more vaccines, using the Emergency Support Instrument of 2.7 billion euros for vaccine purchase, comparably low to the US´s budget of 18 billion dollars.
Since the US and UK have secured vaccine contracts early and purchased sufficient dose amounts, they are on the path to reach herd immunity of 70% by July and August of 2021, distributing sufficient doses daily, at 1.6 million per day in the US and 434,444 does daily in the UK. Italy, on the other hand, averages about 96,000 per day and Germany not much higher at 110,000 dosses per day, meaning most nations would have to double, triple, or quadruple their vaccination rates in order to vaccinate 70% of EU citizens by July of 2021. However, at the current rates, this may not happen until the end of 2021.
On the other side, a delay in vaccine deliveries to some member states is not the only reason for the slower rollout- some member states indeed do have enough vaccines, such as the V4, yet are not distributing what they have. Slovakia has already been delivered the first 200,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, with no current plan of distribution, and will have 3.3 million doses of the Moderna vaccine and an additional 2.8 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Despite sufficient supply, it will not be until May that people aged 40 and older will be eligible for vaccination.
The EU can be perceived to be falling behind in vaccination due to disparity and geopolitical divisions between the several member states and their opinions on vaccination. Some member states are very vaccine-sceptical, such as the Czech Republic, delaying the vaccine purchasing contract, while others have not been prepared with the necessary technical equipment or do not want to wait for the EU´s longer vaccine approval process. For example, late vaccination in the Netherlands has been due to insufficient resources to store the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines at the necessary ultracold temperatures.
Lack of unity can be seen further in the vaccine purchasing, where Hungary did not align with the EU´s choice of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and rather purchased the Russian Sputnik vaccine. Slovakia and potentially the Czech Republic are recently following in the footsteps of Hungary. Slovakia purchased 2 million Sputnik V vaccines from Russia to be delivered in March, desperate to decrease their increasingly high per-capita death rate, and the Czech Republic´s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš says the country cannot wait any longer for their Sputnik approval by the EU´s EMA drugs agency. Paris and Berlin also started negotiating together with pharmaceutical companies separately from the EU in spring of 2020, when the European Commission could not begin the vaccine process as quickly as liked.
Additionally, in some nations the focus has not been put on the most vulnerable people when distributing the first vaccines- In Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, politicians were the first to get vaccinated, whereas the rest of the EU has been primarily focusing on the elderly and healthcare workers. Geopolitical tensions could worsen between the member states with the altering choices of vaccine companies and differences in paces of vaccination due to not being in alignment with the EU´s recovery process. It could also lead to the EU´s population being cleaved in twain; between those able to travel due to having received EMA-approved vaccinations, and those not able to due to having had unapproved vaccines administered.
Moving forward, the issue at hand is not simply who will ‘win’ the vaccine race of having everyone vaccination, but rather meeting goals set out by the EU. What we have encountered so far is that the disparity between the many EU member states is not accelerating the rehabilitation process, and a more cohesive approach is necessary. If the EU countries continue at this rate of misaligning with the EU´s recovery process, there could be discrepancies throughout Europe regarding vaccination levels and vaccination types – the proposed usage of a ´vaccine passport´ may lead to social and economic inequalities. A poll commissioned in the UK found that 66% were in favor of vaccine passports, and support is also high in Greece, Austria, and Spain, with the European Commission planning to publish a ´digital green pass´ for travel this summer.
However, many other EU states, such as France, are less inclined towards the vaccine passport, due to the reasons of current high levels of vaccine scepticism, technological inequalities that have inhibited some from being vaccinated, and those with prioritization of getting vaccinated will have an advantage over young and healthy individuals to travel, for instance. On the other hand, it could be argued that with this vaccine passport, motivation could be increased to be vaccinated if travel will be restricted to those unvaccinated, but only time will tell.
Additionally, if there is a great disparity between vaccination levels across the globe, more mutations may continue to develop and spread. The focus should also be put on vaccinating, for instance, Africa, as fast as Europe, or else Africa will become an incubation area for new mutations, which will then migrate globally and invalidate existing vaccines and efforts.
As demonstrated in the EU Commission´s economic recovery plan, NextGenerationEU, the pandemic can create opportunities for the EU member states to work closer together, and the vaccine rollout should not be any different. With united collaboration, geosocial and economical divisions may be reduced, and the vaccine process may be sped up when all member states are on the same page, allowing for a more resilient future economy and return to previous lifestyles.
Liliana KotvalAuthor : EUROPEUM