Why the European Union is struggling with its vaccine rollout

By: Sydney Joa, 10th Grade

Coronavirus infections are on the rise in the European Union as authorities are struggling to maintain a steady vaccine rollout, lagging behind other world powers such as the United Kingdom and the United States. But why is this happening, especially since the EU has usually benefited from well-funded public health services and an advanced pharmaceutical industry? It partly stems from the general setup of the bloc. Situations like these are more regulated and discussions about vaccine distribution and coordination among the 27 nations have been difficult which significantly slowed the process.

In mid-June of 2020, European government communications with global pharmaceutical companies ended with the decision that the European Commission would be negotiating the obtainment of vaccines on behalf of all 27 countries that make up the EU. In other words, when it came to vaccine negotiations, companies would have to take into account equal production for the entirety of the EU. This decision maintained the EU’s political cohesion while also improving vaccine access for smaller member states. However, this came with drawbacks. Because of the European Commission’s structural flaws, they would be at a disadvantage compared to sovereign governments, as these have direct taxing powers.

Why the EU fell behind

When it came to making deals, the EU was significantly behind the US and the UK. They weren’t as willing as other countries to make big financial and fiscal decisions regarding the early stages of development and production of vaccines. So while the EU “shopped for vaccines like a customer” as stated by the New York Times, the US practically entered into a business partnership with multiple drug companies, investing billions of dollars in vaccine research, testing, and manufacturing. The EU assumed that merely negotiating would be more than enough to obtain doses needed to vaccinate the entire population, while other countries spent billions from the very beginning and were there all along throughout the development process. 

What worsened the situation was the “mindset” that they started with. Some countries figured that they’d rather use as much money needed early on in vaccine development rather than suffer the grave economic downfall that comes with enforcing lockdown for so long. The EU, however, was on a tight budget and thus chased cheaper options. They would spend money on vaccine candidates that eventually came to nothing, and as a consequence, suffered great losses.

As for negotiations, most countries made it fairly easy by signing away all intellectual property rights and ridding drug makers of all responsibility if the vaccines fail. However, European negotiators had to bring vastly different and numerous liability laws from multiple countries together, finding common ground among 27 leaders. Essentially, the EU treated the vaccine procurement like a contract negotiation even though it was, as some call it, a “zero-sum game with limited supply” which means that the overcautiousness and unwillingness to settle from part of the EU came at a loss for them and at a win for other countries who were less concerned over liability issues.

From an economic perspective

As governments all around the world promised a demand for hundreds of millions of doses, drugmakers were compelled to disregard market signals including potential risks, benefits, and losses that come with the creation of a vaccine. But in the interest of speed, some governments were willing to accept that certain vaccines wouldn’t work and took the financial risk, incentivizing companies to develop vaccines as fast as possible.

While the development of a vaccine within less than a year was a huge success for the scientific field, it has also brought along the standard economic problem that is too much demand and not enough supply. Meaning that, apart from the fact that the EU is lagging behind, there’s currently not enough supply for vaccine doses, or at least, not at the rate that the EU would prefer, which has led to dreadful shortages and further delay.

Is the UK faring better than the EU?

With about 59% of the UK population vaccinated compared to the EU’s 11-20% (both statistics include partial and full vaccinations), some have been asking themselves whether the UK’s general success in vaccination over the EU’s situation has anything to do with Brexit. It is a possibility due to the flexibility that comes with being a sovereign state. Furthermore, the EU’s general structure has led them to be a lot more cautious when it comes to unknown risks and they have placed a lot of emphasis on regulations regarding the pandemic.

Regardless of the UK being about a month ahead of the EU in vaccinations, they have been prioritizing getting as many first-doses on as much of the population as possible, while the EU is focusing more on obtaining enough doses to guarantee the two shots within the preferred timeframe. This is because overextending the time between the two shots carries potential risks. Therefore, while the UK may seem like they’re dealing with the vaccination rollout a lot better than the EU, it is a lot more complicated than it looks.

The AstraZeneca situation

The EU spent a lot of money on vaccine candidates that got delayed due to bad results and because of this, they relied a lot on early rollout plans of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The UK also heavily relied on this vaccine but having worked closely with AstraZeneca’s drugmaker gave them an advantage, especially after the supply issues that occurred back in January. 

Medical authorities in the EU were also really slow in approving this vaccine which further delayed the situation. Additionally, a few European countries expressed concerns about dangerous clots and bleeding which led to the temporary suspension of the use of the vaccine. As a result, there has been a lot of skepticism surrounding vaccination among populations across all EU countries.

The EU is still in a good position

Despite all of the difficulties, the EU is still in a commendable position, especially with vaccine supplies projected to increase in the coming months. EU commissioners have stated that herd immunity is expected by mid-summer this year. Nevertheless, it is without a doubt that European leaders will learn from the past few months and improve for the better in the case of future public health situations similar to this one.

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