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April 13, 2021

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The roots of EU’s vaccine debacle

When it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations, Europe is lagging far behind its peers. So far, less than 15 percent of the European Union’s population has received at least one dose, compared to 45 percent in the United Kingdom. The EU’s failure is so profound that the normally placid World Health Organization recently felt compelled to reiterate the obvious: The slow vaccine rollout will prolong the pandemic, with high human and economic costs.

In March 2020, the EU seemed to be on the right track. With the pandemic picking up, it was agreed that the European Commission would negotiate advance-purchase agreements for a portfolio of vaccine candidates on behalf of member states. That way, when a candidate proved safe and effective, enough doses would be made available to Europeans.

At the end of last year, the commission proudly announced that it had concluded contracts for over two billion vaccine doses. As doses arrived, they would be distributed on a per capita basis, thereby avoiding unseemly tensions like those that emerged in the early months of the pandemic, when a rush to claim limited supplies of personal protection equipment pitted member states against one another.

With a large and diversified portfolio of vaccine doses on order and a clear distribution schedule, the EU seemed to have proven its worth. But it turned out that the contracts had been concluded late and were not binding.

As is so often the case with the EU, too many actors were involved in decision-making, so it was virtually impossible to pinpoint who was responsible for what.

Moreover, EU negotiators wasted precious time resisting pharmaceutical companies’ understandable request that they could not be held liable for any problems that might arise from new vaccines, which were being developed, tested, and approved on a dramatically accelerated timeline.

A curious inconsistency pervaded the negotiations. On the one hand, vaccine development and production were left entirely in the hand of private actors. On the other, the EU made no attempt to use economic incentives to accelerate production. Nor did the EU ensure that legally binding delivery schedules were included in its contracts with vaccine developers. The Commission’s claims to billions of doses refer only to the year 2021, sometimes even including 2022.

Clearly, Europe still has a strong base for groundbreaking scientific research and the capacity to produce new high-tech medical products rapidly and at scale. But the EU’s structure is not suited to nimble executive action, and its overly complicated decision-making mechanisms are an obstacle to accountability. As long as this remains true, crises will continue to get the better of Europe.

Daniel Gros is a member of the board and a distinguished fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.


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