As U.S. vaccinations grow, Europe lags

Photo by Steven Cornfield via Unsplash

By Elias Miller
Boston University News Service

Close to 40,000 baseball fans swarmed Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, in the first week of April. During the same time nationwide, many governors have eased restrictions previously put in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. By contrast, major parts of Europe are reinstating restrictions as cases increase again.

France and some of its neighbors are back in lockdown. Europe is seeing a third wave of spiking COVID-19 cases. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 22 called the deadlier U.K. variant of the coronavirus “a new pandemic” of its own.

Only a few months ago, the roles were reversed. Throughout summer and for much of winter, the European continent fared better than the U.S. in controlling its coronavirus caseloads. Some medical experts in America called on state governors and federal leadership to impose strict lockdowns at the federal level, modeled after these European nations. Those calls were overwhelmingly rejected by elected officials.

Source: Statista, March 29; data from Johns Hopkins University.

But the onset of coronavirus vaccines has reversed the gap between the two regions, with the United States vaccination rate exceeding that of Europe as the European Union continues to struggle with delays in distribution. 

Vaccinations began in the United States in mid-December shortly after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccination for public use, making it the first of three vaccines used in the U.S. While cases have been rising over the past 12 days, this newest development follows 10 weeks of steadily declining COVID-19 cases. Average new cases decreased 75.2% from the highest peak on Jan. 11, 2021, according to the CDC

The World Health Organization designated Europe as the global active epicenter of the pandemic on March 13. General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of WHO, said more cases were being reported in Europe every day than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic, just over one year since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

As of April 6, 19% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Comparatively, in Germany and France, the vaccinated population only comprises around 5% in each, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. 

The U.K. vaccination rate is ahead of both its E.U. neighbors and the United States. Forty-seven percent of Brits have received at least one dose, compared to just 13% in the European Union and 32% in the United States, according to data compiled by Our World in Data. 

The E.U.’s labored rollout was put in further disarray when several major European nations, including Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, suspended using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in early March. The suspension was prompted by four cases of blood clot-related complications out of a million total administered doses. 

Prosecutors in Italy seized close to 400,000 doses of the vaccine on March 15 after opening a criminal investigation intended to determine whether a teacher’s death following his vaccination was caused by it. 

After regulators cleared the vaccine, many of the same countries resumed the AstraZeneca rollout, and politicians did what they could to re-inspire confidence in the vaccine. French Prime Minister Jean Castex took the first AstraZeneca shot, as did France’s Health Minister Olivier Véran. 

The AstraZeneca vaccine is not an authorized vaccine for use in the United States.

When major E.U. countries decided to halt AstraZeneca doses, they were already lagging far behind Americans and the U.K. 

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was called for a halt in administration by the FDA and CDC in early April. Like the AstraZeneca vaccine, there were concerns about the vaccine causing blood clots. So far, six out of the nearly seven million people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have experienced these effects. Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, said the pause will not have a significant impact on U.S. vaccine plans because, the “vaccine makes up less than five percent of the recorded shots in arms in the United States to date.”

In mid-December, Belgian budget state secretary Eva De Bleeker accidentally tweeted the prices the E.U. had negotiated with pharmaceutical companies for vaccines. The accident exposed that the E.U. seemingly focused on getting a better deal for its budget, resulting in a lower price per dose. This came at the cost of further delays. 

For instance, Brussels pays 24% less than Washington per each dose of the Pfizer vaccine and 15% less for Johnson & Johnson, according to the now-deleted Belgian document and an analysis conducted by Bernstein Research.

The United States took a more active role than their European counterparts in funding and supporting their drugmakers’ production in other ways, like awarding billions in subsidies and granting them an intellectual property shield on their vaccines.

The FDA also worked quicker than its European equivalent in fast-tracking its approvals system. 

“The U.S. and the U.K. locked in their supplies before they knew the vaccine was going to work. The E.U. was more risk-averse,” Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor of global health law, said in an interview with The Atlantic in February. 

These delays are likely best explained by the E.U.’s handling of the vaccination effort as a unified bloc of its member states. Contracts with pharmaceutical companies were negotiated as a bloc, and rollouts were determined collectively. 

This joint effort benefited the smaller nation states who are more than likely receiving greater supplies of doses than they could have negotiated as individual states. The E.U.’s wealthiest leaders like Germany and France, however, face heated criticism at home for falling short of what they could have accomplished with their own national budgets. 

The joint effort can be seen as a correction of an earlier attitude of every-nation-for-itself. More than a year ago, Italian officials pleaded with their European neighbors for protective supplies like masks, gloves and disposable gowns. The German and French governments blocked exports of their own personal protective equipment at a time when Italy was rocked with one of the highest caseloads in the world. 

The E.U. is planning to vaccinate 70% of its adults by the end of summer, a target that is not assured. Beyond the delays, the full impact of possible variants is yet to be comprehensively observed. As for the U.S., President Biden predicts all Americans will be eligible to get a vaccine by April 19.

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