Europe Is Flirting With a Vaccine Disaster
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s hard not to look in dismay at the feeble start to the European Union’s Covid vaccination campaign.
The bloc has only managed to administer about 8.9 million doses in total, according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, about two for every 100 citizens. The U.S. and the U.K. are running at seven and 10.5 respectively, while Israel is at 43. Since all vaccines that have been approved so far require two jabs to work, it’s a very steep mountain to climb to get the EU’s program on track.
The future isn’t looking much brighter, unfortunately. The EU has a target of vaccinating fully at least 70% of the population in each member state by the end of the summer, but this objective is at risk. Europe has approved two vaccines, one from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE and another from Moderna Inc., but their supply is insufficient. The European Medical Agency is set to review the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford shot this week, but the British pharmaceutical company says it could cut its first-quarter EU shipment by nearly 60%. Another candidate vaccine from France’s Sanofi won’t be ready until at least the end of 2021 because of a major trial setback.
The consequences of this failure could be disastrous if they’re not addressed quickly. The bloc has suffered nearly 426,000 registered deaths from Covid-19 so far, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The longer it takes to bring the pandemic under control, the more lives will be lost. The EU’s reputation is at stake: How can it pride itself on its “social model” if it cannot even protect its most vulnerable citizens?
A successful vaccination effort is also the only sustainable way to help the economy recover. The combination of deep uncertainty, lockdowns and other social-distancing measures contributed to a contraction of 7.6% in Europe’s gross domestic product in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund’s October projections.
The EU’s failures start with its pre-orders of vaccines. While it put together a comprehensive portfolio well before any shots were approved, it was too slow and conservative with the most promising developments: the vaccines based on the innovative messenger RNA (or mRNA) technology from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The EMA lagged way behind the U.K. and U.S. on approving the Pfizer vaccine. Its delay over the AstraZeneca jab is more understandable, given the problems that marred its trial (AstraZeneca hasn’t yet applied for U.S. regulatory approval).
Europe’s rollout has been slow, too, especially in places such as France and Belgium. And there are questions over whether member states are making the right calls about who gets the vaccine first. In Italy only one in 10 jabs has gone to care-home residents, while nearly one in four has gone to health-care workers who aren’t doctors or nurses. It makes sense to protect hospital staff but this balance doesn’t appear right. Another issue concerns vial wastage.
So what can be done? The EU is targeting the pharmaceutical companies. On Monday it met with the top management of AstraZeneca, demanding a full explanation of the delay and that the drugmaker honors its delivery promises. Astra blames problems at one of its European manufacturing sites, but the Commission fears it may have prioritized other countries. “EU Member States are united,” tweeted Stella Kyriakides, the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety on Monday night. “Vaccine developers have societal and contractual responsibilities they need to uphold.”
European governments have every right to enforce their contracts. After all, they’ve paid hefty sums in advance, expecting timely deliveries. Still, they must make sure they have a case. Contracts with pharmaceutical companies are secretive, but it’s possible they give the drugmakers some escape clauses in case of supply problems. Moreover, Brussels must be careful to distinguish between opportunistic behavior and the problems one can reasonably expect with a light-speed rollout of a new vaccine.
One danger is that politicians use vaccine providers as scapegoats to mask their own failings. This type of behavior has happened before during the pandemic, with the blame for Covid’s spread being put on everyone from partying citizens to foreign visitors rather than bad policies. Last week several EU governments were furious at Pfizer after it announced a temporary reduction in doses because it was reorganizing production in a Belgian plant. It turned out that Pfizer would make up the lost ground later in this quarter.
There are significant risks to political grandstanding. It’s fine to put some pressure on vaccine manufacturers, much less so to undermine a key relationship when there are many other countries willing to buy their shots. The close cooperation between Pfizer and Israel has let the country achieve miraculous results in its vaccine rollout. That offers lessons. The EU must be ready to cooperate more closely with the providers, for example by offering financial help for those contractors who choose to reconvert their plants to expand production. While more cash won’t solve bottlenecks, it may help at the margin.
It’s not too late to address earlier failings, but EU politicians must act quickly. The pursuit of normality is a race that has to be won, both for health-care and economic reasons. Those who arrive second will endure the consequences for a long time.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.
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