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The AstraZeneca Question: A Window Into Europe’s Vaccination Failures

For Europe, the coronavirus pandemic seems to introduce a Groundhog Day cycle every few months. As soon as restrictions lift, cases go up again, another round of restrictions are implemented, and life halts again and again and again. However, the recent rollout of COVID-19 vaccines across the globe could help break this pattern. The most prominent vaccines are currently Pfizer and Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, which just became available for wide distribution. A new round of lockdowns across Europe has made the need for adequate rollout of these vaccines more important than ever. France, Italy, Poland, and Germany are among a handful of countries that have initiated fresh restrictions to combat a deadly third wave of coronavirus cases. As Europe inches closer to over one million deaths, there is enormous pressure to expedite vaccine rollout. Regrettably, a lack of sufficient vaccine rollout compounded by flaws in the AstraZeneca vaccine has made countries already under another siege from COVID-19 all the more vulnerable.

The European Union had planned on the AstraZeneca vaccine playing an integral role in its fight against the pandemic. However, when teams in Germany and Norway found possible linkage between the vaccine and an autoimmune reaction causing blood to clot in the brain, these plans were shook. These reactions affected more than 30 individuals in Europe, specifically many women under the age of 55. More than a dozen European countries halted their vaccination procedures after hearing these unexpected side effects. This initial halting of the vaccine rollout has hindered Europe’s fight against the pandemic, where many countries have already been struggling to meet their vaccination goals and inoculate a critical mass of their populations.

This fact is only about 10 percent of European Union citizens have received their first dose of the vaccine, a percentage that is far behind that of the United States and Britain. These stark contrasts come from a discrepancy in each country’s strategies during the early period of vaccine development. In the early development period of the vaccines, the United States had already begun to invest and coordinate with drugmakers. By contrast, the European Union took a fiscally conservative approach that hesitated on early investment. The EU’s conservative approach was coupled by its so-called bloc strategy, which planned for all EU member-states to follow similar rates of vaccination acquisition and distribution. This slower bloc approach ultimately led to the EU receiving fewer doses than their British and American counterparts.

The European Commission on Strategic Joint Vaccination Procurement defended their slow and collective procurement process approach by arguing that, unlike the United State’s selfish vaccine hoarding, the EU was working to ensure all of its members and countries outside the continent had equal opportunity to access vaccinations. Whether these ambiguous morals are legitimate, Europe has now fallen back into a much slower rollout of vaccinations, aggravated by the halting of the AstraZeneca vaccine. This slow start to the vaccine distribution process has left Europe in a more vulnerable position, with more than 20,000 Europeans dying from COVID-19 each week.

Responding to concern over the AstraZeneca vaccine, the European Medicines Agency was quick to come out with a statement that reaffirmed the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. However, more recent statements made by the National Institutes of Health sparked controversy again. On March 22, a U.S study on the AstraZeneca vaccine found it to be 79% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 and 100% effective at preventing severe COVID-19. However, twenty-four hours later, the National Institutes of Health released statements that questioned the efficiency of the AstraZeneca vaccine reported in previous studies and dismantled the comforting claims of the European Medicines Agency. These statements prompted a panicked pledge from AstraZeneca to release more updated information about the effectiveness of their vaccine on March 23. In the March 23rd statement, AstraZeneca confirmed the previous study results, stating that their vaccine was in fact 76% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 and 100% effective against severe or critical disease and hospitalization.

Despite all of AstraZeneca's chaos, many countries have stated their intention to resume vaccinating their citizens with the vaccine. It should be noted that the decision to resume the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine was made separate from any kind of mandate from the European Union that required immediate pause or administering of the vaccine. Countries, like Sweden, have not come to a finite choice on whether to resume inoculating people with the vaccine and have instead stated that they require more time to conclude. However, an array of countries including Germany, France, Spain, and Italy all immediately resumed their rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Such a willingness to accept vaccines indicates a climate of desperation among many EU member states. Desperation for vaccinations seems to link directly to the EU’s mismanagement of its vaccine production and distribution.

Furthermore, the EU’s emphasis on fiscal conservatism in its vaccination efforts has led to many of its less affluent members selling their shares of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. These countries were encouraged to take this approach as a way of compensating for the lack of funds to meet the expense of ultra-cold storage required for Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. These countries banked their hopes on replacing these vaccines with AstraZeneca, the much cheaper option. Poland was among those countries to take this fiscally conservative strategy and give up its Modera quota earlier this year. This decision induced a kind of panic, with members of the Polish parliament even questioning the legality of it and whether it was a breach of obligations to the Polish people. Another major consequence from the EU’s missteps in their vaccine management is the emergence of a quasi-black market for vaccine doses. This quasi-black market consists of individual countries independently purchasing and hoarding their own shares of vaccine, directly going against the EU’s bloc technique.

The EU’s under-investment in vaccine development, their under-shipment of doses, and their encouragement of cutting down on Moderna and Pfizer costs all helped create this climate of desperation we now see among its member states. Now countries, faced with thousands of new cases and new rounds of lockdowns, have no other choice but to vaccinate with whatever they can get their hands on. It is this pervasive sense of desperation that seems to encourage countries to continue their support of the AstraZeneca vaccine, despite the consistent controversy that seems to follow it.

In regards to its global ambitions, the EU’s altruistic plan for making sure countries worldwide, and not just the wealthiest, had access to the vaccine, has also fallen flat. EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen stated that the EU will not share its vaccine doses, specifically the European-made AstraZeneca vaccine, with other countries until it has stabilized their own production. These international shortcomings offer another example of the EU’s failure in planning its vaccine distribution and rollout process. Until a sufficient rollout plan is implemented, EU member states and dependent countries will continue to muddle through the Groundhog day cycle of COVID-19.

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