EU only has itself to blame for vaccine shortages
An old joke has two women in a restaurant. The first says: “The food in this place is truly awful.” The other responds: “Yes, I know; and in such small portions.” This sums up the lamentable mess that the EU has landed itself in over its vaccine policies, which have brought it to trash all its free-trade evangelizing to indulge in vaccine export bans and vaccine nationalism of the most destructive kind.
Senior politicians have been both dismissive of the AstraZeneca vaccine as not effective for the most vulnerable section of the population, the over-65s, while at the same time fuming about delivery delays for the same vaccine. President Emmanuel Macron of France claimed, with no evidence, that the vaccine was “quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.” Many pointed out this was probably an exercise in attempting to dampen demand for the product. The vaccine shortages in the EU came after the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca announced that vaccine deliveries for the bloc would be 60 percent lower than expected in the first quarter of 2021, leaving member states 75 million doses short of expectations.
Few claim that the British government has covered itself in glory during the coronavirus pandemic. Scathing criticisms that too many decisions were too little, too late are borne out by the spread of the virus in Britain and the high death rate. Yet, on the issue of vaccine production and rollout, the UK has left the EU trailing in its wake. AstraZeneca was signed as the University of Oxford’s partner on April 30 last year, alongside a deal to supply 100 million doses a fortnight later. The EU had barely moved at that stage.
So is it any wonder that the UK has given a first dose to more than 11 percent of its population, while the EU has managed just 2 percent. Dissatisfaction with the European Commission’s handling of this is acute, with European citizens furious at the massive incompetence on display. Britain’s decision to refuse to join the EU vaccination scheme — not least because it would have had no say in its decision-making — looks inspired.
How did this all come about? The EU’s insistence that it should handle the vaccine process is at the root of it all. The European Commission has no experience in doing this. This is why Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands had made their own initial arrangements to order supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine before allowing Brussels to take the helm for the common good. As a result, the EU was three months behind the UK in signing a deal with AstraZeneca when it finally agreed on 300 million doses plus an option for 100 million more in August.
The EU also did not oversee the same level of investment to scale up production plants as the US and UK did. Britain has two plants producing the AstraZeneca vaccine.
To top it all, Britain was able to fast-track approvals, to incessant but unnecessary grumbling from European politicians. The EU was once again slow and only managed to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine last week. Pregnant snails have shown more agility. Many questioned why the European Commission was so much more heated about the AstraZeneca delays than it was about the ones Pfizer-BioNTech announced. A slight case of anti-British feeling?
European grapes had clearly turned uber-sour when it imposed an export ban on vaccines. This was clearly aimed at preventing doses going to the UK, amid suspicions that vaccines from European plants had made their way across the English Channel in what the EU claims would be a violation of contractual agreements. The EU published most of the agreement with AstraZeneca but this did not prove to be a smoking gun, as it clearly calls on the company to make “best reasonable efforts” to manufacture and distribute doses.
Still the missteps and follies were not over. The European Commission, as part of its export ban, also invoked Article 16 of Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol, an emergency clause that would mean checks to prevent vaccines entering the UK using the Irish border as a back door. This is remarkable. The return of border controls in Ireland had been, for years of painful Brexit talks, an absolute no-no for Brussels. The Biden team in the US had made it clear that border checks — a violation of the Good Friday peace agreement — would threaten any chance of a US-UK free trade deal. Brussels went ahead without consulting anyone, including the Irish government, which was left seething. All shades of Northern Irish political opinion found themselves in the highly unusual position of agreeing with one another.
It was only hours before the EU had to carry out an embarrassing U-turn and drop this ill-conceived step. British Brexiteers quickly called for a renegotiation of the clause, given that the EU rushed into this emergency move only weeks after it had come into effect. For once, they had a fair point. Northern Ireland may well remain a thorn in the side of any attempts to rebuild the delicate EU-UK ties.
As a Brit, it is heartening to see a few positive marks chalked up in the fight against the pandemic after the sub-par decision-making of the last year and the highest per capita death rate from the virus in the world. Yet one can take no joy from seeing the EU at its bumbling, procrastinating, bureaucratic worst — 450 million Europeans deserve better. The position of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is fragile at best.
More importantly, the European Commission has tried to cover up its own incompetence by picking a fight with the big pharmaceutical companies and engaging in blame shifting. Export bans and vaccine nationalism are antithetical to the whole European project and run contrary to the vital collaborative nature of mass vaccination manufacture. Australia has already complained about the export ban. And Bernd Lange, chair of the European Parliament’s trade committee, fumed: “I believe this is a double standard. In the World Trade Organization, the EU is advocating for the free flow of medicines against COVID. I would find it strange if we now imposed measures that restrict contrary to that principle and restrict exports.” Criticism also came from medical professionals, including World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said “vaccine nationalism” risked a “protracted recovery.”
The European Commission has tried to cover up its own incompetence by picking a fight with the big pharmaceutical companies and engaging in blame shifting.
Such vaccine wars and bickering among the richer countries highlight the privileged status they enjoy. Poorer countries are watching, with many wondering if they might get the vaccine at all this year. Some 95 percent of all vaccinations have so far taken place in just 10 countries. It is incumbent on richer states to do everything they can to get vaccines into arms as rapidly as possible, but also to free up jabs for low-income populations. Hoarding the vaccines and banning exports send the opposite signals and resentment will spread as rapidly as the virus.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech