The desperate race to find a COVID-19 vaccine has turned into the desperate race to actually use it.
Countries around the world – mostly those boasting a high purchasing power – are rushing to secure millions of jabs from a very small pool of pharmaceutical companies. The colossal demand is being met with a modest and uneven supply that has put some governments first in line and others stuck at the back, creating an atmosphere of competition, envy and frustration.
The United Kingdom kicked off the race in early December when it became the first Western country to authorise and use a coronavirus vaccine – in this case the one manufactured by Pfizer and BioNTech. Pictures of Margaret Keenan, the first person to receive the jab, were splashed all over global front-pages. The Washington Post published an article titled “How Britain won the West’s race for a coronavirus vaccine” comparing the authorisation process of Britain with those in the United States and continental Europe.
The headlines quickly moved from London to Tel Aviv. On December 19, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was photographed maskless and with a smirk on his face while being inoculated. The small Middle Eastern country then began a health campaign with enviable speed and efficiency: in the six weeks that followed the photo-op, one third of Israelis received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. In early January, The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, wrote: “How Israel has leaped ahead in the vaccine race”.
But with every flattering headline comes a double edge. The perception of countries like Israel, the United Arab Emirates or the United Kingdom as vaccination leaders is partly the result of others being considered as laggards. In the West, the European Union has had the misfortune of earning the dreaded title.
A disappointing launch
After seeing the joyous pictures coming from Britain, EU governments started to pile pressure on the European Medicines Agency, an independent agency of the EU, to bring forward the meeting to review the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which had been initially scheduled for December 29.
The agency eventually relented and member states launched their campaigns in almost coordinated fashion on December 26, on what was publicised as Europe’s V-Day. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, called the occasion a “touching moment of unity”.
The emotion proved to be short-lived. Deliveries of doses, which Brussels had ordered on behalf of all 27 member states under a common procurement scheme, began to arrive at a slower rate and at smaller numbers than countries had expected.
Only two weeks after V-Day, Sandra Gallina, the EU’s top vaccine negotiation, was facing tough questions from MEPs over the sluggish roll-out. “I’m not sure why this debate is there, the numbers are there, the production is ramping up,” she said.
Production, however, did not ramp up and pharmaceutical companies, like AstraZeneca and Pfizer, announced significant delays in their deliveries, claiming to be overwhelmed by global demand. The setbacks further slowed down the EU's vaccination campaign, all the while countries like the UK and Israel continued their efforts uninterruptedly. Writing for The Evening Standard, journalist Anne McEloy said: “The EU should beware vaccine envy — this is one thing the UK got right.”
Tensions came to a head at the end of January when the European Commission proposed a mechanism to control the exports of vaccines manufactured in EU-based plants, alleging a lack of transparency around the products. The measure immediately backfired due to its seemingly protectionist nature and its haphazard approval – accidentally, it almost re-imposed a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
For Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Affairs, the mechanism is an “excessive”, “unfortunate” and “poorly thought-out” decision which was taken for political reasons and runs counter to the multilateral principles championed by the bloc. He fears that Brussels might have raised unrealistic expectations about increased deliveries that it will not be able to meet.
The debacle added to an already extensive list of negative headlines about the EU’s vaccine roll-out. Dissatisfaction over shortages, coupled with the exhaustion and fatigue of months under lockdown and curfew, is fostering a climate of resentment and competition, almost rivalry, between developed countries.
“We’re in a very competitive global environment, that's the background [of the vaccination race],” Dworkin tells Euronews. He believes vaccines will be used as a “geopolitical element” in the short term due to their importance to protect populations and rebuild economies. Both China and Russia have been promoting their homegrown vaccines as affordable yet equally effective alternatives to the more expensive jabs being manufactured – and stockpiled – by Western countries.
But the impact of this race, Dworkin adds, will be felt for years to come. “There’s no doubt that a lot of countries are going to rethink the importance of the pharmaceutical industry as a key component of their national security. That’s going to be a long-lasting change.”
The shadow of nationalism
The cross-border nature of the coronavirus pandemic and the spread of new variants in different regions of the world cast serious doubts over the effectiveness and suitability of any nation-centred response.
“Viruses don’t recognise nation states. It’s not helpful to compete at national levels because what we need to compete is the virus, not the politics of the virus,” says Erika Harris, a professor at the University of Liverpool specialised in the study of nations and nationalism.
As long as “we live in a world of nation states, there is always a level of nationalism. Nationalism is always present,” Harris explains in a phone call with Euronews. “Time after time, a crisis means that a nationalism of some kind will appear. It’s an ideology that is very adaptable. It’s a very successful form of doing politics.”
Professor Harris believes competition between countries is a natural consequence of prevalent nationalistic feelings. “People understand politics at a national level. People have a sense that their nation state is there to protect them. They have a sense of belonging.” But she warns the nation state "is not an ideal design” and has been the cause of “many problems throughout human history.”
For Daniel Gros, an economist at the Centre for European Policy Studies, comparing the inoculation performance of countries is fair game, on condition they have similar levels economic development and industrial capacity, as in the case of the UK, the US and the big EU member states. “If you want to know whether your own government is doing well or not, you look at other countries, and you ask yourself why they are quicker than they are,” he tells Euronews.
Gros thinks the fraught atmosphere created by the EU's exports control mechanism will be temporary, lasting until the end of March, when the regulation is set to expire. “You can argue that the EU has a bigger problem than others because a) the pandemic is stronger in the EU, and b) Europe has more elderly people.”
Problems with the EU's vaccine roll-out are expected to continue in the coming months, perhaps stretching until late spring. Ursula von der Leyen has already hinted at a “bumpy road” ahead. The effects that the protracted frustration and anger resulting from the sluggish campaign might have on European politics are not yet clear.
In an interview with a German broadcaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her worries: “The question arises: Why is the United States faster, why is Israel faster, why is the United Kingdom faster? That rankles, of course.” Merkel, however, defended the EU's common approach. “That we ordered it together on a European basis was certainly the right thing to do.”
Alexander Stubb, former prime minister of Finland and candidate to the presidency of the European Commission, took to Twitter to make a similar case.
“Without the Commission in the lead we would have been in the middle of vaccine wars/nationalism inside the EU,” he wrote. “Small EU states would have had virtually no negotiating power with the big pharmaceutical companies. Big states would have swept the doses just through mere scale and size. This would have led to frustration and delayed Europe’s capacity to get out of the pandemic.”
The price of sharing
The latest developments in Brussels threaten to focus all the attention on the problems and infighting of rich countries, while medium- and low-income nations haven't even received their first vaccine deliveries.
During January's Davos virtual summit, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called out wealthy countries for hoarding doses and asked them to release their excesses. His call resembled the pleas that the World Health Organization has been making since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
If Western countries continue to pursue self-interested strategies to fight the pandemic, they will end up paying a very steep price, according to recent estimates. The RAND Corporation predicts that vaccine nationalism could cost the global economy up to $1.2 trillion a year in GDP terms.
“Even if some countries manage to immunise their populations against the virus, as long as the virus is not under control in all regions of the world, there will continue to be a global economic cost associated with COVID-19,” RAND's report says.
The International Chamber of Commerce presents an even more disastrous scenario: “Should countries continue to pursue an uncoordinated approach to vaccine distribution, the world risks global GDP losses in 2021 alone of as much as US$ 9.2 trillion.”
On the other hand, the cost of providing low-income countries with vaccines has been estimated at $25 billion.