We did it,” said Ursula von der Leyen in her annual state of the union address last week. With more than 70% of its adult population now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, Europe is, “against all critics, among the world leaders”.
Moreover, the Commission president said, the EU had exported half its vaccines: “We delivered more than 700 million doses to the European people, and we delivered more than 700 million doses to the rest of the world. We are the only region to achieve that.”
It was a far cry from earlier this year, when the US and UK were jabbing their populations at record rates and gloating headlines proclaimed the EU’s painfully slow early vaccine rollout a “crisis”, a “catastrophe”, a “debacle”, a “disaster” and a “fiasco”.
In March, the World Health Organization compared Europe’s rollout unfavourably with the UK’s, calling it “unacceptably slow”. As late as April, only 11% of the bloc’s population had received at least one shot, compared with 29% in the US and 46% in Britain. But last week, according to Our World in Data, the picture looked different.
Nine EU countries, including Portugal, Spain, Ireland, France, Belgium and Italy, have now administered one or both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine to a larger share of their populations than the UK, with a further five having overtaken the US.
Early criticism was certainly justified: hit by stumbles and shortages, the EU was simply slow to get its act together. Health having always been a responsibility of the member states, that may have been inevitable, but it does not make it excusable.
The 27 approved the commission’s collective purchase plan in June 2020, dissolving a vaccine alliance initiated by France and Germany in an attempt to avoid member states competing with each other – and the largest economies hogging supplies.
With no relevant procurement experience, however, the commission approached talks with manufacturers like trade negotiations, prioritising price over delivery deadlines. Some contracts were signed months later than those of rival buyers.
Then the EU regulator opted for a more thorough, but lengthier, approval process, and AstraZeneca, from whom the bloc had ordered 300 million doses for the first two quarters of 2021, failed to deliver more than a fraction, triggering a fractious court case.
In February Von der Leyen conceded the bloc was “not where we want to be. We were late to authorise. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production, and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.”
Next, rare blood clotting problems led 13 EU states to suspend the Anglo-Swedish manufacturer’s shot, denting public confidence in a planned mainstay of the EU’s vaccination programme, with several later authorising it only in older age groups. By early summer, though, things were changing. In mid-April the commission opened talks on a new order for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, ultimately concluding a mega-deal for 1.8 billion shots through to 2023. By May and June, Europe was awash with Pfizer.
Success is far from even across the bloc: poorer states, such as Romania and Bulgaria, are struggling, with 27% and 16% of their populations vaccinated.
But, in general, European decisions are paying dividends. The bloc’s Covid passport, showing proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test, has allowed millions of EU citizens to holiday abroad this summer with minimal fuss, encouraging take-up.
National vaccination drives have also been boosted, sometimes dramatically, in more than a dozen EU countries by domestic health passes, now needed to access anything from museums and gyms to cafes, shopping centres and trains.
Further to increasing vaccination rates, many member states have – in contrast to the UK – already administered first jabs to as many as 80% of 12 to 17-year-olds.
Rather than being a marathon not a sprint, as EU officials like to say, vaccination campaigns should probably be both. But after a slow start that will certainly have cost lives, the EU’s collective approach may, finally, be paying off.