Behind the EU’s vaccine debacle

The New York Times acknowledges that, whereas the U.S., the UK, and Israel are getting their populations vaccinated and seeing sharp declines in Wuhan coronavirus cases, the EU is a “mess” in this regard. David Leonhardt writes:

Across most of the European Union, vaccine rollout has been slow, and new cases are surging. Europe — the first place where the coronavirus caused widespread death — is facing the prospect of being one of the last places to emerge from its grip. My colleague Jason Horowitz writes from Rome: “Governments are putting exhausted populations under lockdown. Street protests are turning violent. A year after the virus began spreading in Europe, things feel unnervingly the same.”

As Eyck Freymann and Elettra Ardissino write in Foreign Policy: “Spring in the European Union is going to be dismal.” Bild, a German newspaper, recently ran the headline “Liebe Briten, We Beneiden You!” — a mixture of German and English that means “Dear Brits, We Envy You!” Wolfgang Münchau of Eurointelligence has said that Europe’s vaccination program rivals the continent’s budget austerity of recent years as “the E.U.’s worst policy error during my lifetime.”

What’s behind this debacle? Leonhardt cites three factors.

First, there was “too much bureaucracy”:

While the U.S. and other countries rushed to sign agreements with vaccine makers, the E.U. first tried to make sure all 27 of its member countries agreed on how to approach the negotiations. Europe chose “to prioritize process over speed and to put solidarity between E.U. countries ahead of giving individual governments more room to maneuver,” Jillian Deutsch and Sarah Wheaton write for Politico Europe.

The result was slower regulatory approval of the vaccines and delayed agreements to buy doses, forcing Europe to wait in line behind countries that moved faster.

Second, the EU was cheap. It emphasized negotiating a low price for vaccine doses. Israel, by contrast, was willing to pay a premium to receive doses quickly. It paid $25 per Pfizer dose and the U.S. about $20 per dose. The E.U. pays from $15 to $19.

Was the discount worth it? I don’t think so. According to Leonhardt, “a single additional lockdown, like the one Italy announced this week, could wipe out any savings.” Not to mention all the extra lives lost.

Third, vaccine skepticism apparently is more widespread in Europe than in the rest of the world. This claim surprises me, but polls support it:

In a survey published in the journal Nature Medicine, residents of 19 countries were asked if they would take a Covid vaccine that had been “proven safe and effective.” In China, 89 percent of people said yes. In the U.S., 75 percent did. The shares were lower across most of Europe: 68 percent in Germany, 65 percent in Sweden, 59 percent in France and 56 percent in Poland.

To be fair, some of Europe’s skepticism arguably has been vindicated. About a dozen countries, including France and Germany, have suspended the use of one of the continent’s primary vaccines, from AstraZeneca, citing concerns about blood clots.

However, the suspension may be the product of skepticism, rather than a validation of it. Evidence that the vaccine causes clots seems thin. In any case, for what it’s worth, I suspect that the benefits of this vaccine outweigh its risks, if any.

Reasonable people can disagree about this. What’s beyond doubt is that the EU now is in much worse shape than the U.S. when it comes to the coronavirus.

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