Back in April 2020, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the UK reached over 350 people per million – about twice as high as those in the EU. Media outlets in the UK and US quickly came to present the EU, and in particular Germany, as an example to follow in the crisis. The Guardian wrote ‘UK must learn from German response to COVID-19’, while The New York Times asked ‘A German Exception?’
One year later, the roles have switched. As the main priority becomes an efficient and rapid vaccination campaign, the EU is falling behind. While the UK and the US have administered over 57 COVID-19 vaccine doses per 100 people, the EU states have administered an average of just 20 per 100. The EU dilemma can be understood as two separate problems; a lack of vaccine doses, and a failure to administer acquired doses.
With decision processes in the complex European Union requiring more deliberation than for an individual member state, it took the members of the EU’s executive until June to decide upon the $3.2 billion joint pot for vaccine purchases. The first deal with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca was signed in August – months after the UK and the US. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, has criticised this competitive “vaccine nationalism”, calling instead for more international solidarity.
Deciding on collective budgets seems also to have lead to more frugal outcomes; the US vaccine program had a $10 billion budget, while the UK is estimated to have spent around $12 billion. This may have made bargaining simpler; Benjamin Natanyahu speculated that part of Israel’s success lay in the fact that they “didn’t quibble about [prices]” – the country has now administered over 118 doses per 100 people. When making these comparisons, it must be remembered that many member states spend substantial amounts on vaccination campaigns outside of the EU budget.
It also took the European Medical Association (EMA) longer to approve vaccines. It was three weeks behind the UK in approving the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and took a month longer to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine – by far the cheapest out of all vaccines available. Some countries decided to go their own way, provoking internal conflicts. Hungary authorised both the Russian vaccine Sputnik, as well as the Chinese Sinopharm.
In many EU states, the AstraZeneca vaccine suffered from an inferior reputation as soon as it was released for use. Multiple countries authorised it only for the under 65 year-olds, following concerns about lack of trial data for older age groups. This led to scepticism about the vaccine’s efficacy. In Germany, thousands of people did not turn up to appointments if they knew they were going to receive an AstraZeneca jab. Local authorities also hesitated to use the vaccine, and many doses remained unused.
To make matters worse, multiple member states temporarily suspended the AstraZeneca vaccine over concerns surrounding blood-clotting. The EMA responded by reasserting the vaccine’s safety, but public trust in the vaccine remained further tarnished. According to a poll by the Elabe Institute, only one in five French people trusted the vaccine, while almost three quarters of Germans said they would let themselves get vaccinated with it, according to a study conducted by Forsa. On the Italian island of Sicily, up to 80% of people offered the AstraZeneca vaccine refused it due to safety concerns.
The New York Times suggests that strict adhesiveness to vaccination campaign plans may also have had a detrimental effect. Most nation states prioritised clinically vulnerable groups, meaning that high age groups were to be vaccinated first. In combination with the effect of the non-authorisation of the AstraZeneca vaccine for the 65 and overs, this led to vaccination delays.
Additionally, EU member states were more reluctant to adopt the British strategy of extending the interval between jabs. This measure was taken to increase the proportion of at-risk-people having received the first jab. In the EU, a higher relative proportion has received the full dose, but a lower total amount.
Finally, organisational complications and inflexibility may also be at fault. In Germany, multiple elderly people struggled to sign up for the vaccine. Initially, this required not only an email address, but an email address per person, which many lacked. Unlike in the UK, there have been vastly fewer reports of surplus vaccines being administered to young people once priority groups have been vaccinated.