- The EU’s failed vaccine procurement efforts, followed by the chaotic handling of its fallout, mark a turn of the tide in the ongoing comparison with the post-Brexit UK.
- However, there is no consensus among health experts what the UK strategy of delaying the second dose will eventually mean for effectiveness.
- The focus on the procurement disaster should not obfuscate the important differences that persist regarding vaccine rollout across EU countries.
During the last five years of Brexit, the UK’s problem was often that short-term political considerations trumped a deeper understanding of legal and technical constraints; the EU skillfully used this to its own advantage during the various negotiations. With vaccine procurement, however, the UK seems to have benefited from just this prioritization of politics, while the EU is struggling. Brussels followed the bureaucratic logic of lengthy negotiations over liability issues before signing any contracts with vaccine suppliers.
In light of the pandemic crisis, in contrast, the UK government made a bold political decision: it opted for taking a risk. If liability issues were to arise down the line, the government would probably have to step in. This enabled the UK to start buying as many doses as possible, as quickly as possible. This political call more than made up for the UK’s status as a much smaller player with much less buying power than the EU. Brexiters could not have made this story up.
Bureaucracy: advantages and limitations
Led by a self-declared “geopolitical” Commission, the EU spent five years warning of the UK as a future “competitor at our doorstep,” but then seemingly failed to anticipate fierce rivalry over initially limited doses. Instead, it focused on the legal details of procurement agreements. The inadequacy of this approach is becoming evident now: first, it is still not entirely clear what exactly follows from these contracts, even after large parts have been published; second, this question does no longer even matter politically, now that the only relevant issue is how to secure more doses, fast.
The panic triggered by this latter realization probably benefited the EU’s chaotic attempts to weaponize the Northern Ireland agreement late last week. Beyond the risk of political pushback in member states, the comparison between Brexit and vaccine procurement highlights both the advantages and limitations of the bureaucratic approach still at the core of EU policymaking. This should be kept in mind also in other areas in which Brussels is trying to position itself as a more political player, from its flagship “Green Deal” to the ongoing debate about “strategic autonomy” and, not least, the pandemic recovery fund.
Looking ahead on vaccinations, however, the outlook for the coming months might be less straightforward. While most EU countries are following vaccine manufacturers’ recommendations of administering the second vaccine dose within a three or four-week interval, the UK has extended the gap between doses to up to twelve weeks.
Among epidemiologists and health experts, a consensus is lacking about what this will mean for effectiveness. BioNTech has insisted that the impact of delaying the second dose beyond 21 days has not been tested, while a study suggests an efficacy rate of 52% after the first dose of this vaccine. However, another recent study shows that delaying the second dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may even positively affect its efficacy. Therefore, it is possible that the implications of the UK’s strategy will vary depending on the specific vaccine candidate. Some EU countries are also considering pushing back the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – the Netherlands have announced that they will wait six weeks between doses.
For now, almost 14% of UK citizens have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while only 2.3% of EU citizens have. However, the numbers are more similar when considering the share of people fully vaccinated against Covid-19 – 0.73% in the UK and 0.62% in the EU – even though the EU started its vaccine rollout three weeks after the UK. In some countries, such as Denmark, Italy, and Spain, the share of people now fully vaccinated against Covid-19 is higher than in the UK and not far from US levels.
Back to the rollout question
The issue of vaccine procurement and supplies – including delays in delivery schedules – has understandably attracted much attention in recent weeks. However, this debate tends to overlook that there are still important differences in the vaccine rollout across EU countries. While countries such as Denmark (100%), Spain (94.6%), and Italy (89.3%) have administered most of the vaccine doses made available to them by the EU, other countries have administered a much lower number, including Germany (61%) and the Netherlands (28.5%, as of 29 January).
The reasons for these divergences are varied and not entirely clear yet. They might be related to different vaccination strategies in terms of priority groups, dosing guidelines, and challenges in the logistics of deployment. These cross-country differences act as a reminder that vaccination strategies in several EU member states could face challenges even after more vaccine supplies will have been secured.
Therefore, while procurement matters in the short term, the rollout could entail more country-specific problems. The risk is that, as during previous iterations of the pandemic crisis, the current, forced “break” to national vaccine rollouts is being wasted. The extra time might not be utilized for reaching a better understanding of why some countries were doing so much better than others in rolling out even the limited number of doses that have so far been available – and what could be done to learn from them.