A Red Cross volunteer prepares AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine at the vaccination centre in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, southwestern France.

Photo:

Bob Edme/Associated Press

A recent fiasco comparable to the use of the Covida vaccine in the European Union is hardly conceivable. Protectionism, mercantilism, bureaucratic incompetence, lack of political responsibility, the crippling principle of security – it is all there. The cops in Brussels and European capitals would be funny if the consequences weren’t so dire.

But hospitalizations and deaths are rising again in Italy, Germany and France, while effective vaccines are reducing illness and death in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel. So far, 34 doses per 100 people have been administered in the United States, 40 in the United Kingdom and 111 in Israel. Most vaccines require two doses. By comparison, there are 12 in France, Germany and Italy.

As the pandemic rears its head again, Europe’s mistakes will cost the rest of the world dearly economically as the continent struggles to get out of the doldrums.

***

Take the last thing first. Several European regulators and politicians have argued this week that Oxford/

AstraZeneca

The vaccine – the only one currently widely available in the EU – may not be safe before it is reconsidered and people are now asked to take it.

This time there was concern that the injection might cause problems with blood clotting or platelets in some patients. Some people who received the vaccine developed blood clots, but the European Medicines Agency (EMA) found that the vaccine was not associated with an increased overall risk.

Among the 11 million people vaccinated in the UK, serious blood clots are less common than would be expected in the general population. People can get clots for many reasons, including other diseases and medications. Covid-19 can also cause blood clots, so any risk-benefit calculation is in favor of vaccination.

This is the part that has a clear European safety record and has led the vaccination programme from the beginning. The launch of AstraZeneca’s vaccine was suspended even after approval by the EMA, as German bureaucrats argued there was no evidence of its efficacy in patients over 65.

Fewer older patients were sampled in the vaccination trial, but this proves the validity of this claim. This hypothesis was quickly refuted – evidence already available in the UK at the time showed high efficacy in the older cohort – but not before the French president.

Emmanuel Macron

dealt with the issue.

This reckless talk deterred elderly and vulnerable Europeans from getting vaccinated last month. It also skewed the priority lists. In Italy, younger teachers and university professors were given the vaccine before sick and elderly people, in a program developed when authorities said the vaccine was not effective in the elderly.

One of the problems is that no one seems to be fully responsible for monitoring safety and effectiveness. In theory, this is the job of the EEA, and the agency has done so with typical Eurocritical aplomb. The EMA approval process is more bureaucratic and requires the cooperation of all EU Member States. Imagine if the FDA had consulted all 50 states.

But national governments are also allowed to make their own security decisions in emergencies. The UK has used this opportunity to

Pfizer

and AstraZeneca is running at full speed, even though it has only been a member of the EU since the end of last year.

Other governments have used this discretion to delay vaccination. European capitals have refused to follow the UK in granting emergency use permits, apparently fearing that this would undermine European solidarity. But some governments welcome a unilateral ban on vaccines, as in the case of the AstraZeneca Kerfuffle blob. European regulators have a motto that prevention is better than cure, but in this case they are safe without the supplement.

At least now there are millions of backs available to Europeans who want it. This was not always the case, as purchases slowed shipments and almost led to several trade wars. Last year, Brussels officials seized the opportunity to persuade pan-European voters to buy vaccines to bolster the EU’s credibility with European voters. Purchases on behalf of 500 million Europeans should also give the EU more influence over pharmaceutical companies.

It was pure chaos. The EU bureaucracy has little experience of public procurement on this scale and has also had difficulties in concluding group contracts for fans and safety equipment. Brussels officials approved the vaccines months after the United States and the United Kingdom did so last year and only after some European governments threatened to organize their own purchases.

Washington and London understood that pouring large sums of money into the research and development of a large number of companies in the hope that some of them would work was critical to mass acquisition. Brussels has focused on lowering the cost per dose. Europeans pay a few dollars less per dose, but are at the bottom of the supply chain.

The EU’s response – a combination of threats of export restrictions, vociferous trade disputes with pharmaceutical companies and sour grapes over alleged problems with effectiveness – has largely undermined Europe’s credibility on trade issues. There is also a risk that vaccine nationalism and trade restrictions will be transferred elsewhere.

***

Could it have been different? The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed has shown how a big government can use its budget to fund research and development in a crisis. The UK and Israel have shown that small countries can use the speed of regulation to move forward. But somehow the European Union, a continental political bloc of small nation states, has managed to get the worst of both worlds. It suffers from the bureaucracy of big government and the inefficiency of small government.

The Europeans can discuss calmly who is to blame and how such a situation can be avoided in the future. The rest of the world can only hope that they will get their vaccines soon.

Potomac Watch: Instead of going back to school, the new president is taking over the work of his predecessor. Image: Oliver Contreras/Zuma Press

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in print at 20. March 2021.

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