Europe’s vaccination rollout has been heavily criticized for being too cautious while there remains variety in vaccination strategy across Europe. For example, Serbia has allowed its citizens to choose the vaccination they get, subject to availability, including the Chinese produced Sinopharm and Sinovac As well as the Russian Sputnik V. This has resulted in major success, with Serbia becoming the third in Europe for the total doses of vaccines delivered per person. However, a complicated nexus of issues such as safety concerns, lack of consensus, storage facility capabilities, the spread of conspiracy theories and big-pharma contracts have entangled Europe, preventing it from currently being the global model for successful vaccination rollout.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President, has said herself that ‘the start was tough’. Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) described the European vaccine rollout as ‘unacceptably slow’ and ‘prolonging the pandemic’ as new infections for every age group across Europe, apart from those over 80 years old, continue to increase.
A major stumbling point for the bloc has been divergence between national and European Union (EU) institutions, as exemplified by the recent suspension of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by 13 EU countries including Italy and Norway. This directly contradicted the recommendations of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the drug regulator for all 27 EU member states, which advised countries to continue issuing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine despite ongoing assessment of preliminary data of blood clots in some vaccinated people. The EMA decided not to ban the vaccine given the benefits outweighing the risk of side effects: blood clots are more common in other drugs, such as the contraceptive pill, which is a widely accepted drug.
As well as the politicizing of which vaccines to rollout, vaccination strategy has also been deeply politicized, perhaps best exemplified by the UK’s vaccine campaign. The UK has been prioritizing issuing as many of its population, especially the vulnerable, with the first dose of the vaccine, with the UK now having had over 48% of its population receive at least one dose of the vaccine. Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health in the UK, has claimed this is ‘because of Brexit’, which is somewhat true as the UK leaving the EU has meant it has been able to approve vaccines independently through the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and negotiate contracts with pharmaceutical companies independent of the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU.
This Eurosceptic narrative however must be treated carefully as while there has been initial success with the UK vaccine campaign, we are yet to see the full impact of Brexit. Tariffs have not been an issue given the UK and EU have both set their most-favored nation tariff for vaccines to zero, in compliance with the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) rules. However, border delays might impact vaccination rollouts as Britain continues to navigate its post-EU affairs.
Already, there have been reports of potential vaccine delays and potential vaccine shortages, however it is still unclear to what extent this is a valid concern. While European countries with domestically-produced vaccines will likely not suffer supply chain issues, it is likely vaccine imports will become disrupted one way or another whether it be due to vaccine hoarding, lack of adequate storage facilities or pharmaceutical companies not being able to deliver on schedule. However, most of these companies are optimistic on their ability to fulfil contracts with governments, reporting Q1 deliveries being successful and future deliveries on track with current schedules. As these companies expand production lines and factories, coupled with the potential need for regular bolster vaccination shots in the near future, it will be especially tough to meet ambitious delivery schedules.
Nonetheless, Ursula von der Leyen has set the target of inoculating 75% of adults by the end of the summer, ordering an additional 50 million Pfizer vaccines. With additional vaccination shots, it will be important to ensure the speedy uptake of all available vaccines across Europe. This can be partly ensured by guarding against the spread of COVID-19 misinformation: even Serbia, citing a relatively successful vaccination campaign, reports that 70% of its population believes at least one COVID-19 conspiracy theory.
Finally, for European and other regional vaccination campaigns to be effective, it will be important that there is a global convergence of vaccination strategy. In order for poorer countries to receive adequate access to the vaccinations, the success of programmes such as COVAX will be crucial. It is simply not good enough that the wealthiest 20% of the global population are home to 40% of all available vaccines.