What Led to Europe’s Vaccine Disaster?

europe vaccination

*This article is originally published by Fair Observer.

By Hans-Georg Betz | In late December 2020, it was announced that Switzerland would start its COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Eligible persons were asked to make an appointment. Those of a particular age with certain health risks — such as diabetes, high blood pressure and allergies — were encouraged to register.

Given my age and the fact that I suffer from pollen allergies in the spring, I filled out an online form and was informed I was eligible for a jab. So, I went through to the registration page only to be told that there were no appointments available. Two months have since passed and there are still no openings. The way things are going, I probably won’t get vaccinated before the end of summer — or perhaps by fall or Christmas.

“Unacceptably Slow”

Switzerland is not alone. The pace of vaccination is proceeding at a snail’s pace throughout the European Union. Just weeks ago, Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s director for Europe, vented his frustration, charging that the vaccine rollout in Europe was “unacceptably slow.” Germany is a key example. By the first week of April, 13% of the population had received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 5.6% had received the second dose. In comparison, around the same time, more than a third of the US adult population had received at least one dose and 20% were fully vaccinated. In the UK, which is no longer a member of the European Union, the vaccination rate was even higher

In the face of heavy criticism for its alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, speaking on behalf of the union, went on the offensive. On French television, he defended the European Commission’s vaccine procurement strategy and affirmed that Europe had the capacity to deliver 300 to 350 million doses by the end of June. He also claimed that Europe would be able to attain “collective immunity” by July 14, France’s national day.  

France’s premier conservative daily Le Figaro was not the least impressed. In a biting response, it characterized the EU’s vaccine procurement strategy as nothing short of a “fiasco” and frontally attacked Breton and, with him, the European Commission. Not only had Breton refused to admit “the slightest error,” continuing instead to defend his vaccine policy, but he also took French citizens for fools. Clearly, Breton’s statements had hit a raw nerve, at least in France.

Why Is Europe Behind?

There are a number of reasons why the European Union is trailing the US and the UK. One of the most important ones is the union itself. Its sheer size allowed the EU initially to negotiate lower prices for vaccines by buying in bulk for all 27 member states. Reducing costs, however, came at a heavy price in the form of the slow delivery of the vaccines. In addition, the European Commission had to get the green light from EU member states before it could arrive at a decision over which vaccines to purchase. As a result, the EU “ordered too few vaccines too late,” wrote Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. Hesitation on the part of member states, given “the novelty of the technological approach,” led to delays in authorizing the leading vaccines, including the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that had been developed in Germany.   

According to Le Canard Enchainé, a French weekly known for its investigative journalism, the UK ordered the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in late July 2020; the EU did so in November. The same held true for Moderna. The EU was so late that by mid-November, Stephane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, warned that if the EU continued “dragging out negotiations to buy its promising Covid-19 vaccine,” deliveries would “slow down” since nations that had already signed agreements would get priority.

Add to that what Spain’s premier daily El Pais has called the “AstraZeneca fiasco.” The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was supposed “to power the bulk of the continent’s inoculation campaign,” according to El Pais. Instead, holdups and delays in the distribution of the vaccine, together with pauses in the vaccination campaign following reports about suspected side-effects from the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab — rare cases of blood clots — seriously jeopardized the EU’s strategy. In Germany, at the end of March, it was decided that AstraZeneca would no longer be administered to people under the age of 60. Denmark has ceased administering the vaccine completely.

By now, the fallout of a strategy that was more concerned with saving money than potentially saving lives is obvious to all — as is the damage done to the image of the European Union. As Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, recently put it, the EU’s vaccine crisis “has been catastrophic for the reputation of the European Union.” Ironically enough, this is the very same Leonard who, in late December, celebrated “the return of faith in government.” The pandemic, he stated, had “reminded everyone just how valuable competent public administration can be.” Three months later, his optimism — “five cheers for 2021,” to use his words — had turned into gloom and doom. And for good reason, given the unfolding of the full extent of the vaccination disaster.

The results of a recent survey are stark. In early March, around 40% of respondents in France, Germany and Italy thought the pandemic had weakened the “case for the EU.” When asked whether the EU had helped their country to confront the pandemic, a third of respondents in France and Italy and more than half in Germany answered “no.” At the same time, however, member states have not fared much better. In response to the question of whether their country was taking the right measures to combat COVID-19, almost 60% of French respondents, nearly half of Germans and more than 40% of Italians answered in the negative.

This is the crux of the matter. As time has passed and vaccines have started to be delivered, it has become increasingly difficult for individual countries to blame the European Union for their own failures and shortcomings in securing and delivering the vaccine to their populations — or for the reluctance of citizens to get vaccinated.

In late March, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control published a report on the vaccine rollout in the EU. By far, the most important challenge facing most member states was the limited supply of vaccines and frequent changes in the timing of deliveries from suppliers, “which can be unpredictable and can significantly affect the planning and efficiency of the rollout.” Other challenges included problems with logistics, limited personnel to administer the vaccines, shortage of equipment such as syringes and special needles, and issues related to communication such as information about the vaccine and scheduling appointments.

Is the EU Goal Realistic?

Under the circumstances, the EU’s stated goal of having at least 70% of the population vaccinated by the summer appears to be an increasingly distant prospect. Or perhaps not: It depends on whether individual countries — particularly France, Germany, Italy and Spain — will get their act together and move to “warp speed.”

Some countries appear to be prepared to do so. In Spain, health authorities expect a significant acceleration in the vaccination campaign over the coming weeks. There is growing confidence that the country will meet the 70% mark by the start of summer. Even in Germany, whose blundering performance during the past several weeks made international headlines, experts are optimistic that the country will reach the target.

More often than not, the problem is not necessarily the supply of vaccines, but difficulties in getting target groups vaccinated. This is, at least in part, a result of communication infrastructure, which in some cases are far behind the technological frontier. Take the case of Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU. In late March, Geneva’s Le Temps alerted its readers that when it comes to the digitalization of its health system, Switzerland was in the “Middle Ages.” Instead of using the internet, Swiss health authorities sent faxes to communicate the number of new infections. When it comes to digitalization, the author noted, Switzerland, which prided itself as the world champion in innovation, was “full of fear” if not outright “recalcitrant” to adopt new technologies. The consequences were fatal not only with regard to dealing with the pandemic, but also with respect to the country’s international competitiveness.

The situation has not been any different in Germany. Earlier this year, when the vaccination campaign got going, public authorities sought to inform the most vulnerable groups — those older than 80 — that they could get vaccinated. Yet they had no way of finding out who was in that age group. So, they guessed based on first names. Katharina, yes; Angelique, no. This is German efficiency in 2021. Or, as a leading German business magazine put it, if “your name is Fritz or Adolf, you will (perhaps) be vaccinated.” And this in Western Europe’s biggest economy.

Better Preparation for Crises

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only brutally exposed Europe’s unpreparedness to confront a major crisis, but it has also shown the parochial state of mind of significant parts of the European population.  Much has been written over the past year about American science skepticism and conspiracy theories, held partly responsible for the toll that COVID-19 has taken on the US population. Yet Europeans are hardly any better. Not only have parts of the European population eagerly adopted even the craziest conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, but they have also shown high levels of skepticism with respect to COVID-19 vaccines, despite scientific assurances of their efficacy and safety.

Again, take the case of Switzerland. In December 2020, only around 56% of the population indicated they would get vaccinated. The rest expressed great reservation, despite the fact that the survey stated that the vaccine was deemed safe and effective. In the meantime, as the pandemic has continued with no end in sight, there are indications that the mood has changed. In Germany, only two-thirds of respondents indicated they would get vaccinated when asked in June 2020. By the end of March this year, that number had increased to over 70%. These developments are encouraging. 

Not only have most European countries finally managed to live up to the challenge, but their populations appear to have realized that COVID-19 is worse than the flu, that the pandemic poses a fundamental threat to life as we know it, and that the only way to get back to “normality is to get vaccinated — not only for oneself, but also for everybody else. In the old days, this was called “civic culture.” With the rise of populism in advanced liberal democracies, civic culture more often than not has gone out the window, replaced by a culture centered upon “me, me, me.”

Yet the fact is that this pandemic is only the beginning. The next big challenge is confronting climate change. It is to behoped that Europeans will be better prepared than they have whileconfronting the coronavirus.

*This article is originally published by Fair Observer.

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The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.