As COVID-19 cases started rising again in Europe, the European Commission (EC) placed strict and efficient plans to limit public exposure while distributing vaccines, with the goal of having 70% of the public vaccinated by the summer. The European Commission is “the executive branch of the European Union (EU), responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU.” In Regards to COVID-19, the European Commission has the role of creating plans and laws that keep the members of the EU safe, and cases low. The plans were put into effect under the assumption that vaccines would be accessible and plentiful, however, this has not been the case. During the last weeks of January, the vaccine production companies Pfizer and AstraZeneca announced they would be pausing roll out of the vaccine. Pfizer announced a halt in delivery due to upgrading manufacturing plants. On the heels of these setbacks, major European nations- including hard-hit Spain and Italy- have suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine following reports that it could cause blood clots.
The EU was already affected when AstraZeneca announced a 60% cut in vaccine deliveries due to production troubles. Given that many of the European Commission's plans had been based on vaccine rollout by AstraZeneca, this shortfall caused a major delay in the EC's plans and forced a re-evaluation of the current plan. While other companies are in the beginning phases of vaccine production, (French drug maker Sanofi is said to have doses by summer 2021) these new doses will not be available soon enough to continue with the EC's original plans. With a high percentage of the population labeled high risk, and 20% of Europe's population being of age 65 or older, the EC will have to consider heavier legislation, and construction of new production plants. As a larger consequence, the vaccine shortfall has exacerbated the already existing Euroskepticism sentiment and the declining trust in the capabilities of the EU government.
European Union citizens are facing decisions about how much more restriction will be necessary in order to keep their high risk populations safe. As Freymann and Ardissino, writers for Foreign Policy explain, there are 105 million Europeans who are labeled high risk, which includes both health care workers, and people aged 65 and older. The vaccine shortfall has directly affected and disrupted their vaccination timeline. Since the COVID-19 vaccine requires 2 doses for each individual, the EC would need to deliver 210 million doses just for the high risk population. So far they have only delivered about 17 million due to the shortages. The EU has an even longer way to go for vaccinating citizens of all risk categories, and the shortfall has greatly reduced their ability to begin this process.
The delay of getting shots into the arms of citizens has sparked the need for greater restrictions to be implemented as the next best defense against the virus. Many EU citizens were actually supportive of heavier restrictions, namely in Germany and France, yet the EC decided against going forward with their implementation. Instead they created new legislation regarding restrictions on the export of the vaccine along with the promise of greater transparency by the EC leaders going forward. The new mechanisms within the legislation will require all member states to agree to where and how the vaccine is distributed. These requirements are to ensure that the EC be held accountable for vaccine development and distribution.
As an additional, more long term solution to vaccine development and distribution, the EC is proposing to invest in upgrades of current pharmaceutical plants in Europe, and in production of new facilities that can make the COVID-19 vaccine. Along with long term solutions and prevention, the EC has also proposed investing in upgraded technology that can aid in detecting new strains in the future. This technology would decrease the chances of a vaccine delay having this devastating of an effect in the future. The EC seeks to use the new budget, along with the COVID recovery fund that amounts to 1.8 trillion euros ($2.2 trillion), to implement these plans.
Despite attempts to manage and deal with the fallout from the looming prospect of vaccine shortages, the seeds of public frustration against the EU have already been sewn. One of the main results faced by the EC in response to this delay, is public decrease in trust of the abilities and strengths of the EU. The European Union is behind many countries in its numbers of the population vaccinated, such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Citizens of the EU member states are blaming the EU for the vaccine shortfall, and with that blame, Euroskepticism could reach even higher numbers. Currently, 1 in 3 voters support parties that are critical of the EU and the EC. This skepticism is due to a variety of reasons including immigration, monetary policies, and distrust in the overall system. The fallout from Brexit also contributed to this rising tide of nationalist rejection of the EU and showed other member countries it is possible to leave. The failure of the vaccine rollout is only adding to these percolating hostilities, which could shape Europe’s future well beyond the years of COVID-19.
Thus, despite the European Commission’s efforts to grapple with vaccine shortfall through greater transparency and accountability from the EC, millions of high risk people will have to endure a longer wait for their vaccine. With the pause in vaccine production and use, coupled with the steady rise in cases, criticism of the EU is growing deafening. The short term problem of vaccine rollout is the first hurdle to overcome, and the consequences of the growing distrust in the EU will be an obstacle to face in the long road ahead.