It is the latest sign of the power of the Covid-19 vaccines: The number of new cases is declining, often sharply, in countries that have vaccinated a large share of residents.
And on the other end of the spectrum is the European continent.
Across most of the European Union, vaccine rollout has been slow, and new cases are surging. Europe — the first place where the coronavirus caused widespread death — is facing the prospect of being one of the last places to emerge from its grip. My colleague Jason Horowitz writes from Rome: “Governments are putting exhausted populations under lockdown. Street protests are turning violent. A year after the virus began spreading in Europe, things feel unnervingly the same.”
As Eyck Freymann and Elettra Ardissino write in Foreign Policy: “Spring in the European Union is going to be dismal.” Bild, a German newspaper, recently ran the headline “Liebe Briten, We Beneiden You!” — a mixture of German and English that means “Dear Brits, We Envy You!” Wolfgang Münchau of Eurointelligence has said that Europe’s vaccination program rivals the continent’s budget austerity of recent years as “the E.U.’s worst policy error during my lifetime.”
Why has Europe done so poorly? There are three main reasons.
1. Too much bureaucracy
While the U.S. and other countries rushed to sign agreements with vaccine makers, the E.U. first tried to make sure all 27 of its member countries agreed on how to approach the negotiations. Europe chose “to prioritize process over speed and to put solidarity between E.U. countries ahead of giving individual governments more room to maneuver,” Jillian Deutsch and Sarah Wheaton write for Politico Europe.
The result was slower regulatory approval of the vaccines and delayed agreements to buy doses, forcing Europe to wait in line behind countries that moved faster.
2. Penny-wise and pound-foolish
Europe put a big emphasis on negotiating a low price for vaccine doses. Israeli officials, by contrast, were willing to pay a premium to receive doses quickly. Israel has paid around $25 per Pfizer dose, and the U.S. pays about $20 per dose. The E.U. pays from $15 to $19.
The discounted price became another reason that Europe had to wait in line behind other countries. Even in purely economic terms, the trade-off will probably be a bad one: Each $1 saved per vaccine dose might ultimately add up to $1 billion — a rounding error in a trading bloc with a nearly $20 trillion annual economic output. A single additional lockdown, like the one Italy announced this week, could wipe out any savings.
“The price difference is macroeconomically irrelevant,” Münchau writes. The E.U. “tried to lock in a perceived short-term price advantage at the expense of everything else.”
3. Vaccine skepticism
“Europe is the world’s epicenter of vaccine skepticism,” Deutsch and Wheaton of Politico Europe write. That skepticism predated Covid, and now its consequences are becoming clear.
In a survey published in the journal Nature Medicine, residents of 19 countries were asked if they would take a Covid vaccine that had been “proven safe and effective.” In China, 89 percent of people said yes. In the U.S., 75 percent did. The shares were lower across most of Europe: 68 percent in Germany, 65 percent in Sweden, 59 percent in France and 56 percent in Poland.
The skepticism helps explain Europe’s latest vaccination problem. About a dozen countries, including France and Germany, have suspended the use of one of the continent’s primary vaccines, from AstraZeneca, citing concerns about blood clots.
But the evidence that the vaccine causes clots is thin. Europe’s main drug regulator still says the benefits outweigh the risks. And Ann Taylor, AstraZeneca’s chief medical officer, has pointed out that the rate of clotting among vaccinated Europeans is lower than “would be expected among the general population.”
Dr. Muge Cevik, a virus expert at the University of St. Andrews, told me yesterday that it was always important to scrutinize vaccines. But, she added, “I would say the benefits of the A.Z. vaccine in preventing Covid, hospitalization and death outweigh the risks of side effects, especially in the middle of the pandemic.”
The bottom line: Over the summer, the U.S. was struggling more than any other country to contain Covid. Today, Europe appears to be in much worse shape.
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