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Another Fine Mess — The EU’s Vaccine (Mis)management

Frances Gogh receives the first of two Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine injections at Guy’s Hospital in London, England, December 8, 2020. (Victoria Jones/Pool via Reuters)
Detailing the EU’s months-long failure and bureaucratic bungling in administering COVID vaccines.

The vaccine campaign against COVID-19 is doubtless a key factor for global economic growth. Europe is crucial in this regard. Indeed, it’s home to several of the already approved vaccines: think of the Pfizer vaccine (where the critical breakthrough came from its German partner BioNtech), and the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson (J&J’s vaccine was developed by its Belgian subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals) vaccines. Plenty of vaccine production is also taking place in the 27 countries within the European Union. Nevertheless, the vaccine rollout within the EU is lagging.

To understand why, recall that last year, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, was bestowed with an important duty: to negotiate contracts with pharmaceutical companies.

In the last few weeks, a lot of anger, political and otherwise, has emerged from within the EU in response to its poor vaccine-administration performance relative to Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (That the U.K. only recently quit the EU is an irony that hasn’t escaped many.)

One reason for that may be that the “European Medical Agency” (EMA) — the EU’s equivalent of the FDA — has been too slow to approve vaccines. Indeed, many have pointed to the U.K.’s success in being the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer vaccine on December 2 as clear evidence of where the blame should lie. (While the U.K. was still bound to follow EU rules until January 1, Brexit likely enabled the government to go it alone and use an emergency procedure permitted by EU law; this was something that only Hungary — which does not enjoy a good relationship with either the Commission or a good number of other member states — has done as well.) The U.K. started to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine on January 4, while the EU only approved it at the end of January.

A second reason, undoubtedly, is that most EU member states have been struggling to keep up with the vaccine rollouts in the United Kingdom, U.S., and Israel. France’s vaccination record so far is only 140,000 per day. What’s particularly troubling, too, is that the pace of France’s vaccination campaign is slowing, not accelerating, with numbers falling back dramatically during weekends. On Sunday, January 31, for instance, only 4,560 people received the shot. The weekend before, the U.K. vaccinated almost 1 million people. In Germany, the pace has also been falling since mid January.

To be fair, some EU member states, such as Denmark, Hungary, Romania, and Poland are making the best of it and are doing quite well, even if they still have administered less than half of the number of shots delivered in the United States.

Perhaps the most important reason for the EU’s slow vaccine rollout was the failure by the European Commission to secure contracts with pharma companies as rapidly as others did. While the U.S. and the U.K. concluded a deal with Pfizer for its COVID vaccine in July 2020, it took the European Commission until November to sign a similar deal. (This happened despite reporting from the Wall Street Journal in July that the vaccine had been proving very promising.) The U.K. also agreed to buy the AstraZeneca vaccine in May, while the EU dragged its feet and only placed an order for the shot in August.

It must be mentioned that this was after four European countries — the so-called Inclusive Vaccines Alliance (IVA), consisting of the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Italy — had been negotiating separately from the European Commission with AstraZeneca and had succeeded in reaching a preliminary agreement in June. At that point, German chancellor Angela Merkel ordered her health-care minister, Jens Spahn, to hand over this responsibility to the European Commission bureaucracy and even to apologize. In one analysis, Bloomberg points out that “Merkel’s hand prints are all over Germany’s vaccine failings.” That the Commission then took another three months to sign off on the deal with AstraZeneca is yet another failure to add to the already troubled legacy of Merkel, who long ago announced that she won’t be seeking reelection in the fall.

It very much looks like the reason for the delay was that the EU Commission was not only trying to impose more legal liability on the drug companies but also trying to negotiate the price down — ultimately paying 24 percent less for the Pfizer shot and 45 percent less for the AstraZeneca vaccine than the U.S. did, and a lot less than the U.K. did — so that it could then boast about how being outside of the EU is such an expensive affair. Never mind that obviously, the cost of delay — financially, let alone in human terms — outweighs the money saved on the vaccine price. Israel, for example, paid 2.3 times the EU’s price and only has a population of around 12 percent of Germany’s, but obtained 40 percent more vaccine doses than Germany (despite the latter being home to the Pfizer/BioNTech). Indeed, a study estimates that the cost to EU economies from the slow pace of vaccination and prolonged lockdowns compared with the U.S. and U.K. has been € 100 billion.

To be fair, several European countries, including Belgium, were unhappy with the initiative of the “vaccine alliance,” so some case could be made that — in order to prevent relations between EU member states souring — it was a good idea to move to a collective-purchasing program. Even then, however, it would probably have been preferable to leave the handling of these negotiations to a technical team steered directly by the governments of the 27 EU member states, rather than letting the politicized (and supranational) European Commission take care of matters.

Clear evidence of how problematic the European Commission’s involvement could be was on full display when AstraZeneca announced that it would only be able to deliver 31 million instead of 80 million vaccines to the EU by the end of March, as a result of some production issues.

In response, the Commission publicly challenged the company and ultimately published their official contract. Yet the contract, governed by Belgian law, isn’t clear at all. One Belgian lawyer concluded that the obligation for the company to deliver vaccines within a certain timetable was uncertain — a view broadly in line with AstraZeneca’s perspective that it was only committed to use its “best reasonable efforts.” This should not come as a surprise, given that the possibility of production trouble has been expected since June. Obviously, AstraZeneca wasn’t going to make hard commitments on delivery schedules.

The EU Commission suspects that some of the vaccines produced in the EU by AstraZeneca were shipped to the U.K. Again, this may well be compatible with the terms of the EU’s contract, as the U.K.’s contract had been agreed upon three months earlier. This suspicion led the Commission to propose a system that could very well pave the way to an export-restriction scheme for vaccines, despite months of warnings by its president, Ursula von der Leyen, against “vaccine nationalism.” EU governments rubber-stamped this scheme and already put it into law, eager to divert attention from the mess that has been made. This has since provoked anger from countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Canada, whose politicians are now fearing potential vaccine-supply problems as a result of the decision. Pharmaceutical companies have already complained that they have started experiencing delays in deliveries of vaccines and their components because of the EU’s export-control mechanism.

Some journalists described the move as “Europe First,” but the question is whether it actually does put Europe first. Politicizing something as important as vaccine distribution may undermine the trust international investors have in the EU as a zone with a robust rule of law and a rich ecosystem of researchers and pharma companies able to come up with life-saving medicines.

The whole thing became even more ridiculous when it appeared that the new EU regulation could mean imposing border checks between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, lest this become a route through which vaccines would escape the EU into the U.K. Without any interruption since June 2016, when the British voted for Brexit, the EU had insisted that the one thing to avoid on the island of Ireland was border checks. This was also laid down in a protocol, which only went into force on January 1. With its move, the European Commission managed to unite the Irish and U.K. governments, as well as the Labour opposition and all parties of fractured Northern Ireland politics, against it, forcing Brussels to back down very quickly and scrap the specific provision on Northern Ireland, while keeping the overall new vaccine-export regime.

To add insult to injury, EU Commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen, attempted to shift blame for the whole mess onto her trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis. After considerable pushback, however, von der Leyen issued a half-hearted admission that “mistakes were made” but that “in the end, we got it right.” She then went on to suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine may not be so safe really, stating that the U.K. compromised “safety and efficacy,” by authorizing vaccines so early. This follows comments made by French president Emmanuel Macron over the supposed lack of efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine. John Bell, a medical professor at Oxford University, commented that “if you didn’t have any vaccine the best thing you could do is reduce demand.” Macron had been jumping on insufficient data to prove that the vaccine also works for those over 65 years old. New trial data from AstraZeneca now however also support the view that the vaccine is effective in the elderly.

Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo may have started the trend at the end of December, claiming that “the UK have started vaccination earlier, that’s correct. But they have used their population as [guinea pigs] over there.” It’s noteworthy that the same politician has been proposing firm state action against the great danger of “fake news.” That this may all stir up vaccine skepticism in the U.K. and beyond seems to weigh less with these politicians than trying to deflect attention from their own failure.

Let’s now hope that despite the bottleneck for which the European Commission is partly responsible, EU countries step up their game. There are good reasons to believe that the vaccines not only limit the spread of the virus, but also work well against the variants that we have seen so far. Provided that there are fewer infections between May and August in Europe, for seasonal reasons, this ought to mean that there still is time to get enough people vaccinated by the end of August, when it gets colder again. Sadly, however, a couple of dangerous months still lie ahead. Indeed, it is a real shame that many more vulnerable EU residents have yet to be vaccinated because of bureaucratic inertia and bungling.

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