The first European Council video conference of 2021 took place last Thursday and, what began as a catch-up on the European Union’s coordinated response to the Covid-19 pandemic, quickly unravelled into an emergency meeting complicated by frustrating developments.
For when it comes to vaccine roll-out, the bloc is not only far from leading the race, but also facing further delays to its goal to vaccinate 70% of adults by the end of September.
According to research by POLITICO, if inoculations continue at their current pace, the EU as a whole won’t hit that target until March 2024. Bulgaria presents the most concerning case: it won’t get there until 2040 unless it picks up vaccinations by a factor of 29. Malta is the only country that might just meet the European Commission’s target in time, provided it doubles its number of daily doses.
The same estimates show that the UK, where the Conservative Party hopes the vaccination drive may restore faith in Boris Johnson’s government, will have vaccinated 83% of its adults by the end of the summer, provided the current number of doses per day remains unchanged.
One reason for Europe’s lag is slower regulatory approvals in the EU, where only the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs are currently being administered. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is yet to be signed off by the European Medicines Agency, although it may well do so as early as today.
On top of this, both Pfizer and AstraZeneca announced delivery delays last week which will further hamper vaccination efforts in the EU and beyond. While Pfizer said it was slowing supplies to Europe as it seeks to increase capacity at its Belgian processing plant, AstraZeneca offered few details as to why “initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated”.
The news of reduced supply has caused deep dissatisfaction among EU leaders, with Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, accusing both companies of serious contract violations and vowing to use “all available legal tools” against them.
If we discount the potential impact of emerging coronavirus strains, things could still speed up depending on new vaccine developments and better policy coordination at both EU and national levels.
But while the EU might be working against the clock, it is worth remembering that most developing countries have been widely left behind in terms of access to Covid-19 vaccines. That is no doubt the most sobering fact of all.