EU’s political failure on vaccines will cost many lives
The first message I received from a friend after tweeting last week that I had received the first dose of the AstraZeneca jab was: “You are brave.” Having been desperate, like so many others, to get a vaccination and knowing that I was very lucky as billions of people have not yet had the chance, brave was the last thing I was feeling. Relief was the overpowering emotion.
Other than relief, my other thoughts were devoted to how extraordinary this was. Scientists had, in the space of just nine months, developed, tested and delivered an incredibly effective vaccine, which was already being rolled out to millions of people. I was no trial guinea pig — 11 million people in the UK alone have had an AstraZeneca jab, along with 4 million in the EU.
Yet my friend’s reaction highlighted just how damaging the brouhaha over this “Oxford vaccine” has been. Well-educated, sensible people are questioning it and considering it to be possibly too risky to take, even if it means leaving yourself vulnerable to one of the greatest viral killers in modern human history.
Just how did this situation, where the AstraZeneca vaccine was banned for three days across many EU states, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, arise? Bans are still in place in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. They did not wait for the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to report on its additional testing. France had already limited the vaccine to the under-65s, before flipping and deciding to only give it to the over-55s. In January, President Emmanuel Macron had queried whether the vaccine worked for the elderly, saying it was “quasi-ineffective.” It is all part of a dynamic that is leading to huge spats between the EU, UK and others, and could even involve export bans.
Is it any wonder, then, that people have started to get scared? This will cost lives — in fact it has already cost lives. People are canceling vaccination appointments. Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, was clear: “Because of this delay, and because of the uncertainty now of the vaccine in some people’s minds… I think it will probably run to thousands of lives that have been lost.”
All this increases vaccine hesitancy, which is a real danger to the general public and the quest to defeat the virus. It plays into the hands of the anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory mobs; the sort who would believe that Bill Gates or Anthony Fauci has successfully inserted a microchip into my arm to control and track me.
The populations of some countries seem more susceptible to this vaccine hesitancy than others. France is particularly blighted, making the undermining of trust in the vaccine by its leaders even more irresponsible.
The limited risk is telling. The vaccine was first rolled out to the elderly, where clotting events are more likely. Despite that, out of 20 million vaccine doses administered, there have been just 25 cases involving blood clots, none of which can be attributed directly to the vaccine. This is below the rate one would normally expect.
So to what extent was this a political rather than a medical crisis? Blood clotting events should not be ignored and must be investigated. A failure to do so would engender further mistrust. Yet medical professionals were stating that the benefits of taking the vaccine far outweighed the possible risks. The EMA immediately reviewed the vaccine and once again cleared it for use. It found there was “no increase in overall risk of blood clots. However, in younger patients there remain some concerns, related in particular to these rare cases.” The World Health Organization said the same.
What is clear is that there has been an outbreak of excessive risk aversion. Italy suspended the rollout of one batch of the vaccine because a soldier had a cardiac arrest. What is startlingly clear is that the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is far more dangerous than any of the vaccines, so to pause the rollout of vaccinations is baffling.
Underlying all of this is a huge political failure, for which the AstraZeneca vaccine is a scapegoat. The reality is that the EU has handled its vaccine rollout in a disastrous fashion, costing lives and extending the lifespan of the pandemic. It is already facing its third COVID-19 wave, with a third of France under lockdown and countries such as Poland and Italy also bringing in new restrictions. European political leaders glance jealously across the English Channel, where the UK has administered 40.5 vaccine doses per 100 people, compared to the EU’s 12. Four times more people have been vaccinated in Britain than in France. Is it any wonder that Macron has been trying to undermine the AstraZeneca vaccine? It has shown his government in a terrible light and he needs to dampen demand. Prime Minister Jean Castex had his AstraZeneca jab on Friday, but more needs to be done to rebuild trust.
More surprising perhaps is Germany’s lackluster performance, with Chancellor Angela Merkel promising that the country will now show “more German flexibility,” whatever that means. It has more than a million doses in storage, rather than in people’s arms. Across the EU, this figure rises to more than 7 million.
If undermining confidence in one of the four EU-approved vaccines was a crass and irresponsible decision, then any move to ban vaccine exports would be another. Vaccine nationalism does not work against this virus, which requires cooperation and the pooling of resources. Many in the EU, including France and Germany, want a ban on exporting AstraZeneca doses to the UK but, as Pfizer has warned, the UK could respond by banning the export to the EU of key ingredients used in the manufacture of its vaccine — a deadly downward spiral.
This increases vaccine hesitancy, which is a real danger to the general public and the quest to defeat the virus.
The US and the UK are not innocents in this either. Like others, they have hoarded vaccines. Unlike the EU, London inserted UK-first clauses into its vaccine contracts, while the US has used the Defense Production Act to ensure its vaccine supply.
Those powers that have cornered the vaccine market need not just to work together, but also to do everything possible to accelerate the rollout worldwide. Aggressive nationalist rhetoric and hollow saber-rattling imperils lives. Above all, politicians need to make sure it is just the virus, not them too, which endangers lives.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech