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  • Mohamed Abdulkahar

The EU's Vaccine Problem

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

The EU has secured 2.6 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines, with 88 million doses delivered and 62 million doses administered as of today. Still, the EU is falling behind other countries such as Israel, the UK, and the US in the total percentage of vaccinated adults. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban criticized the vaccine delivery process in the EU by saying it was “constantly delayed and rescheduled”.

EU Vaccine Row over Shortages and Astra Zeneca Controversy

So, why is the EU falling behind, why is the process so slow, and how did the EU population and governments react? To answer these questions, we need to first look into the EU’s process of purchasing and distributing the vaccines.

The process

As of today, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has granted conditional marketing authorisation for 4 vaccines: BioNTech and Pfizer, Moderna, Astrazeneca, and Janssen Pharmaceutica NV. They began reviewing 3 other vaccines in February, which were Novavax, CureVac, and Sputnik. The EU commission wanted a diversified vaccine portfolio to have a better chance at having at least one vaccine candidate be approved by EMA. If candidates are shown to be safe and effective in the future, EU members can donate a portion of their doses to low and middle income countries.

The vaccination process in early stages is slow. The process is “progressive”, which means that there will not be enough doses for all adults in the first few months. This is because the first doses are assigned to priority groups identified by EU states. These include healthcare workers and adults aged above 60. However, the plan is to have all adults vaccinated by the end of 2021. EMA has stated that in order to overcome the disease, 70% of the EU population will need to be vaccinated, which they intend to achieve by the end of September.

EU Vaccine Row and Delay in Supplies

Why is the EU falling behind?

The EU is falling behind countries like Israel, the UK, and the US. Doses administered per 100 residents in these countries are at 111.3, 54.8, and 48.8 respectively compared to the EU’s 17.7. The EU blamed supply delays on the slow distribution of vaccines, but said that the EU would catch up with the others eventually. Other reasons attributed to the slowness were “complicated distribution chains” and requirements like deep-cold storage.

The slow distribution of vaccines has led some EU Member States like Hungary and Slovakia to buy vaccines from China (Sinopharm) and Russia (Sputnik), which are vaccines that still need to be approved. This action was taken to accelerate their vaccination campaigns since distributing vaccines to 27 Member States is complicated.

According to visiting professor at King’s College London Dr. Penny Ward, some countries’ initial refusal to use the AstraZeneca vaccine on people aged 65 and older due to concerns of its efficacy may have contributed to the limited use of the vaccine. The Head of Internal Disease Department of Hacettepe University in Ankara said the vaccine supply is the “biggest hurdle”. However, he also mentioned that the EU will eventually catch up with other countries one way or another.

The UK and the US

The UK and the US are Western countries who are ahead of all other Western countries. Over 31 million adults (60%) in the UK have received their first dose, and over 5 million (10%) have received their second dose. The UK has ordered over 400 million doses from seven different companies. As of now, the approved vaccines for use are AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna. The UK expects to have a vaccinated adult population by the end of July. Since 400 million doses is way more than what the UK needs to vaccinate its population, the surplus will be donated to poorer countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, DR Congo, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

In the US, over 3 million doses are given per day on average. If the pace continues like this, the US is expected to reach 75% vaccinated population in three months. The US has secured 700 million doses, which will be enough to cover 400 million people. President Biden’s priority is to make sure the American population is vaccinated first. What comes after will be discussed once that goal is met.

Covid-19 vaccinations in the UK and the US

The outrage

The slow vaccine rollout has caused outrage amongst the European population. When compared to the UK, US, and Israel, the EU is far behind in terms of percentage of inoculated population. This means that while the EU struggles to get back to normal life, other countries ahead in the race are expecting a return to normal life soon.

To make matters worse, the EU had exported 34 million doses to other countries like Britain, the US, Canada, and Mexico despite the vaccine shortages it’s facing. In a bold retaliation, Italy brought a shipment that was headed to Australia to a halt. Italy was able to do so by following a new “emergency rule” that allows EU member states to halt exports of vaccines produced in the bloc.

Picking up the pace

In order to distribute vaccines faster, the EU needs to pick up the pace. WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge stated that in order to pick up the pace, the EU must increase vaccine manufacturing, cut back on some rules regarding vaccine administration, and use all the doses currently available.

"there needs to be a combination of vaccination and adherence to public safety rules"

Cases amongst the unvaccinated population continue to grow. Although nationwide lockdowns were in effect, 13 countries have been easing restrictions in the past 2 weeks. Dr. Kluge urged the European authorities to not relax safety measures just yet. In order to beat this virus, there needs to be a combination of vaccination and adherence to public safety rules. Slow vaccine intake combined with relaxed measures and individuals’ non-adherence to the rules will lead to more cases and more deaths, causing even more sacrifices.

A final note

The EU is behind in the race to fully vaccinate their population. This is causing unrest in the region due to the population’s desire to return to normal life. Although they are behind, the EU promises to somehow reach their goal of 70% vaccinated population by the end of September.

The EU has a good vaccine portfolio that includes major manufacturers. They planned to have an excess to donate to lower and middle-income countries. However, they are slow due to flawed logistics and management. In order to speed up the process, they will need to increase manufacturing, impose less barriers on vaccine administration, and use the doses they have instead of donating them. Meanwhile, it would help to use a mix of vaccination and restrictions to enforce public safety to decrease the chance of spread amongst unvaccinated populations.

For more articles on EU and international issues, head to our dedicated Foreign Affairs section.

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