In the race between vaccines and new Covid-19 variants, I am on the losing team. There is a simple reason for this, and it is because I live in the European Union – in my case, in Spain.
The UK, the US, Israel and other developed nations are so far ahead of us in this battle that the comparison no longer just stings, it infuriates. Serbia is doing twice as well, Morocco is doing better – to name just two other higher-performing countries.
The EU’s dismal performance was driven home to me starkly this week when my twin sister got a first AstraZeneca shot in Exeter, as over-50s across Britain are vaccinated.
I would also have been vaccinated this week if I lived in the UK, making me part of the drive for vaccine-induced herd immunity that will prevent deaths, restart the economy and lower the cost to future generations. My older siblings and 21-year-old nephew with Down’s syndrome have all also been vaccinated in the UK, but I do not now expect my jabs until June.
In fact, last week Madrid was struggling to vaccinate willing 80-year-olds, whose appointments were being cancelled owing to a lack of doses. Care home residents and health staff (and some teachers and police officers) have been dealt with, but still fewer than 10% of Spaniards have received their first jab. La Vanguardia reports that, at current rates, it will take until February to double-dose 70% of Spaniards.
Only political incompetence can explain a set of blunders that will be paid for in human lives and economic damage across the EU.
That has now been compounded by this week’s temporary suspension of AstraZeneca jabs in Spain, Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere. WHO and European Medical Agency (EMA) advice to keep vaccinating was ignored while the New York Times reports that, for Spain and others, “the chief motivation was political”.
That suspension ended on Friday in most places (not until next Wednesday in Spain) but the mixed messaging from EU leaders has been damaging the rollout for weeks – with Emmanuel Macron calling the AstraZeneca vaccine “quasi-ineffective” for the over-65s on the exact same day that EMA approved it for the over-65s.
So whom should we rage at? The lack of vaccine is the European commission’s fault, because it lobbied to take on continent-wide procurement and then failed at the task. The current AstraZeneca delay is the fault of national leaders who decided, as the director of Italy’s medicines agency, Nicola Magrini, told La Repubblica, that this “was a political choice”.
The commission president, Ursula von der Leyen – herself a physician – and the health and food safety commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, must shoulder the blame for the vaccine drought. They should have recognised that the normally sluggish and cautious commission was not up to the task of coordinating a massive and rapid vaccine procurement project for 450 million people.
Von der Leyen continues to insist that a free-for-all would be “the end of our community”, while at least one faster-moving member state, Hungary, is already sourcing vaccine elsewhere – and moving ahead of the rest. Yet there is no popular uproar about that in the rest of Europe, and I can only applaud such action.
Her threat to block exports on Wednesday, with the EU already sending 41m jabs abroad (a quarter to the non-reciprocal UK), would make more sense if the EU were not sitting on its AstraZeneca supply. Australia, subject to a block on export of the same vaccine from Italy, must be furious.
In Spain the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and his health ministers are to blame, since they are in charge of broad health policy while delivery is in the hands of the regional governments in Madrid, Catalonia and elsewhere. Nor should they have ceded procurement to Brussels.
Having first complained that AstraZeneca was not delivering enough, Europe is now stockpiling the vaccine. Spain is currently sitting on more than 750,000 AstraZeneca doses, having used only half its stock. Revelations in the Financial Times reveal that this has been coordinated across EU capitals – who are worried that the blood clot scare will damage overall vaccine uptake. Anecdotally, all I can say is that the damage appears to be done, with politicians constantly fuelling suspicion about the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The AstraZeneca freeze was always a lose-lose move. It will be paid for in Covid deaths and a later, slower return to normality.
Thanks to President Biden’s bold $1.9tn stimulus and the country’s fast vaccine rollout, the US is predicted to return to pre-pandemic growth course next year, while Europe will take several years to get there. By the end of next year, the gap between us will have grown by 6% because of our different Covid responses.
Spanish belief in the European project, which I have embraced along with recently acquired Spanish nationality, means there has been little public complaint and no political fallout. Yet that project will not work if we do not all shout and scream when it performs as badly as now. Germans, meanwhile, are fuming. The tabloid Bild even ran a front-page headline loudly telling Britain: “We envy you”.
There were powerful arguments for pooling the vaccine effort – mainly that this would avoid “vaccine nationalism” within the EU – but the body charged with delivery has proved itself unfit.
The task is not easy, and normally efficient Canada has had similar trouble with its vaccine rollout. And we have seen this week newly emerging problems in the UK over upcoming vaccine supply. It is also true that, overall, EU countries have been much better at controlling Covid-19 than either the US or the UK. That advantage may soon be lost, however, as France returns to lockdowns, cases soar in Italy and Spain also sees a new uptick – all before vaccines can do much to dent the progress.
We Europeans should also check our privilege. Most of the planet is far behind us in vaccinations. Yet while precious vaccine is stockpiled, that privilege only becomes starker, since nobody benefits. If you won’t hand it out, give it to someone who will.