- Several governments are looking beyond the EU procurement scheme amid continued discontent with the bloc's overall vaccination strategy.
- Countries with a high capacity for vaccine deployment and/or greater EU skepticism might be more likely to follow unilateral approaches in the coming weeks.
- An increase in vaccine supplies is expected; some countries, however, are still struggling to use up all the doses available.
Against a background of worsening Covid-19 indicators in various EU member states, pressure is building on governments to speed up their vaccination campaigns. Countries such as Italy are considering changing their strategy in order to prioritize the provision of a first dose to the maximum number of citizens. Beyond sequencing issues, several governments are also exploring ways of increasing vaccine supplies outside the EU's procurement procedure.
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen will travel to Jerusalem this week to discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an alliance to boost vaccine procurement, including the possible construction of in-country production facilities for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Kurz had previously criticized the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for being too slow in approving vaccines. Frederiksen had described EU procurement efforts as insufficient and argued that unilateral action is needed to move forward.
This highlights once again the increasing divisions over the EU's vaccination strategy and, more particularly, its procurement scheme. Meanwhile, some Central and East European (CEE) countries have secured vaccine deals for Russia's Sputnik V (Hungary, Slovakia) outside the EU procurement scheme or are considering doing so (Croatia, Czech Republic). Others like Poland are currently studying the purchase of China-made Sinopharm vaccines, while Hungary started administering this vaccine last week, although public willingness to take it is low. Neither China's Sinopharm nor Russia's Sputnik V jab have been approved for use in the EU.
In dire need of positive news
Austria's and Denmark's high institutional capacity at home would presumably allow them to administer a larger number of doses at a faster pace if these were available. In fact, the most recent data shows that both countries have been particularly successful in administering doses made available by the EU – Denmark has administered more than 90% and Austria close to 80%. In addition, in both countries, citizens' support for EU decision-making is low, and trust in national governments is comparatively higher. Other countries with high vaccine deployment capacity and/or widespread skepticism towards EU-wide solutions could also opt for unilateral approaches in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, in some CEE countries, traditional anti-EU rhetoric mixes with China's relative success and Russia's vaccine diplomacy. In addition, the worsening of the pandemic in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic is pushing them to consider other vaccines. Deployment capacity appears to vary substantially across CEE. Hungary and Romania have a poorer record in administering vaccines. Budapest has failed to use more than half of its available doses – this could be explained partially by the recent arrival of Sinopharm vaccines. Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have administered between around 75% and 85% of the supplies available.
Overall, the fact that more member states are looking beyond the EU suggests that the bloc needs to urgently show some progress on the procurement front. The latest public opinion data shows that in France and Germany, citizens criticize both the EU and their national governments for the handling of the vaccine rollout, while Swedes are more critical of their own government. It might be positive for the EU that, as more vaccine supplies are secured, public attention will increasingly turn to national governments and their ability to deploy them.
Supply is not enough
In any case, the outlook for the EU procurement scheme is likely to improve in coming weeks. AstraZeneca has confirmed that it should be able to supply 180mn doses in Q2, and Pfizer has pledged to deliver at a rate three times faster than in Q1. Meanwhile, the single-shot J&J vaccine could be approved by the EMA on 11 March, with inoculation expected to start in early April. The European Commission is also allegedly considering expediting the approval process for new vaccines.
Moreover, EU governments are expected to start using the AstraZeneca vaccine for senior citizens following the release of new data from England and Scotland showing its effectiveness in older groups. However, public skepticism on the AstraZeneca vaccine will not disappear overnight, and governments could struggle to communicate their U-turn. In many countries – Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, among others – most of the available AstraZeneca vaccines have not been administered yet.