This week, the European Union will hold a crunch summit on whether to impose a vaccine export ban. Whatever the rights or wrongs of such a proposal, it is symptomatic of a rollout that has gone wrong from the very start.
It is no exaggeration to say that the EU’s approach to the vaccine programme has been entirely lacking in innovation, passive towards manufacturers failing delivery targets, and slow to react to fast-paced events as global efforts at mass immunisation have got underway. The EU’s vaccination shortcomings now threaten a health and economic crisis across the continent as other parts of the world begin to open up.
Even the most ardent of the European Union’s supporters, I amongst them, would likely admit that the bloc’s approach to vaccination has been characterised by complacency. The view from Berlaymont appeared to be “we have the buying power, the production capacity and expertise” when it came to vaccinations and therefore everything would be fine.
However, the fixation on price rather than speed of delivery and the complacency in failing to act against companies falling short on their commitments has left the programme in a mess. By contrast other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, UK and America have shown the positive impact a different approach has made. These contrasting proactive and creative approaches serve to highlight the shortcomings of the EU’s efforts.
It is a lack of complacency that has motivated those countries that now stand out for the effectiveness of their pandemic response. In Israel, concerns that it wouldn’t be able to compete with the major purchasing countries, in particular America, lay behind its decision to strike a ground-breaking deal with Pfizer. It was an approach that recognised what the country could offer, rather than restrictions on what it couldn’t. By contrast the European Union’s approach rested on the infrastructure and buying power it figured it already had, proving a major reason behind its slow, unimaginative approach.
Staying with the Middle East, the region provides further examples that show up the EU’s vaccine approach. The UAE, in large part driven by improved cooperation with the private sector, in this case G42 Healthcare, built up a comprehensive medical research, diagnostics and vaccine production infrastructure virtually from scratch in the space of a year.
Contrasted with the EU’s complacency, the UAE’s approach was driven by the urgency of wanting to become far more self-sufficient and not reliant on the rest of the world to work it out for them. The company’s genomic sequencing project aimed a better understanding how a disease like Covid-19 has been maintained through mutation and community transmission highlights an approach that looks beyond the current pandemic.
It is a tragedy for the millions of Europeans waiting to be vaccinated that the EU Commission failed to act with the same urgent proactivity. At least we are starting to finally see some recognition that the status quo cannot continue.
In my native Italy, new Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s swift action in blocking the export of AstraZeneca jabs bound for Australia, whilst controversial, at least recognised the need to aggressively deal with the continent’s supply issues. It was a warning to manufacturers to honour their commitments. Talks between Draghi, Merkel and Macron has resulted in a wake-up call for Brussels that it has the power to act more urgently and swiftly in emergency cases such as this.
Looking to the EU’s near neighbours, the UK has aggressively ensured that over 10 million vaccine supplies have been imported from Europe, with none flowing back in return, a major factor in its successful rollout. The EU has adopted no such proactivity of its own and whatever the merits or otherwise of this approach, its effectiveness in terms of the securing of early supplies cannot be argued with.
Belatedly, the EU is finally waking up to the need to be proactive in solving its supply problems, hence talk of securing more of the continent’s self-produced vaccines. The concern, however, is that much of the damage has already been done by a bloc that rested on its laurels. Despite others showing them up in terms of proactivity and innovation, the EU still has considerable commercial and economic clout, despite what sceptics might think. It is time to start using it.