Europe must step up its game after flawed vaccine rollout

Europe has entered the second year of the coronavirus pandemic with a rising caseload but one major bright spot—the vaccines which the continent began administering in December that represent the best hope of returning to normal life.  The vaccine rollout, however, has been anything but smooth—even in the continent’s leading economies. In fact, a series of glitches is thwarting inoculation efforts across Europe against a worrying backdrop of tightening restrictions and concerns that the latest escalation in Covid-19 cases—and the spectre of a new, more contagious strain sweeping across the UK—may overwhelm health services.

A slow start?

The EU has come under fire for the speed of deployment of Covid vaccinations, as new cases mount and the death toll rises. The bloc began its vaccination program at the end of December, following the approval of the German-developed Pfizer/BioNTech jab – although, perhaps surprisingly given the vaccine’s European origins, the Pfizer vaccine was greenlit in the UK and US much earlier than in the European bloc.

Concerns have also been voiced over the quantity of vaccines secured by the EU – raising questions about whether there will be sufficient supplies to meet demand. Plans are in place to distribute vaccines to EU nations simultaneously, on a per-capita basis. But, more than 446 million citizens live in the 27 EU countries and current EU purchasing agreements include a number of vaccines which have yet to be ruled on by the European Medicines Agency (EMA)—most notably the AstraZeneca jab developed by Oxford University, which the EU was heavily banking on due to its low cost and relative portability.

What’s more, European authorities have struggled to get the doses they already have acquired into arms. In an apparent bid to pacify anti-vaxxers, France cautiously opted to vaccinate at a glacial pace – inoculating just 500 people in the first week of its program. Although inoculations in Germany are progressing more quickly, there are fears that its health authorities may yet run short of stocks. Meanwhile, the Netherlands has faced criticism for preparing to administer the as-yet-uncertified AstraZeneca vaccine instead of the approved Pfizer jab, and, as a result, is the last EU nation to begin vaccinations.

Even in the UK, where vaccinations received earlier approval, red tape has hampered the rollout. While 4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine were delivered to the UK in December, government figures show that only 1 million people had been vaccinated by the beginning of 2021.

Ramping up the coronavirus response

European policymakers are attempting to resolve the issues as quickly as possible. France, has simplified procedures in order to accelerate its inoculation campaign, and the UK is hoping that the introduction of the AstraZeneca vaccine will help protect a population dealing with a dangerous new strain.

Facing an increasing blame game over whether it had ordered enough vaccines, the EU announced on January 8th that it had reached a deal with Pfizer to double its doses of the highly effective jab. By increasing its supply of the Pfizer jab, the EU hopes it will have sufficient stocks to immunise enough people to finally gain back some ground against the virus—though the delivery of the additional shots will not begin until the second quarter. It’s a race against time as infection rates are skyrocketing and economically damaging lockdowns are becoming commonplace.

Despite this late surge of proactivity, it’s probably too late to erase the impression that European policymakers dropped the ball on the vaccine campaign – which is why it’s more important than ever that European leaders start preparing for the crucial post-vaccine phase.

Living in a post-Covid world

In particular, governments will have to address how to loosen restrictions on those who’ve been vaccinated, how to maintain them for those who’ve not had the inoculation, and how to determine quickly and securely who falls into each of these two categories. It’s a thorny issue that will have to balance individual freedoms against global public health issues, but it’s clear that a system for proving vaccination status may well be an essential precursor to re-establishing normal conditions in some sectors – trade and tourism, for instance. The UK’s vaccine minister, Nadim Zahari, has even suggested that such a scheme could be required by bars, restaurants and entertainment venues such as cinemas.

High-tech solutions are in advanced stages of development. Swiss security company SICPA, for example, is deploying its existing CERTUS digital seal technology to enable blockchain-based verification of health information such as Covid test results or vaccination status without compromising individuals’ personal data.

With such sophisticated systems already underway, it’s puzzling that many European countries have yet to explain how they will keep track of Covid immunization, while the UK is currently passing out flimsy paper vaccination cards to people who’ve been inoculated against the coronavirus. Critics of the British scheme have argued that the cards could drive a lucrative black market in fakes – some cards looking eerily similar to those handed out by the NHS have already been spotted for sale on social media platforms for as little as £5. The government has so far denied the cards will form part of a ‘vaccine passport’ but concerns over the potential for fraud remain—as well as concerns that European policymakers are once again falling behind the curve by not moving proactively to implement a robust system for keeping track of vaccination status.

With people across the continent looking forward to getting ‘back to normal’ as soon as possible, they’ll be counting on their leaders to provide reassurance, direction and support. Given the shaky start to the vaccine rollout, European policymakers must manage the return to post-vaccine life confidently and effectively. The long-term consequences of inaction or further vacillation are unthinkable.

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