BIPP: Covid-19 Vaccinations: How the EU Dropped the Ball

Annie Maley, BIPP Intern

As the race against COVID-19 continues, the rates of vaccinations globally have been exceptionally varied. In large, industrialized, western countries there is a particularly interesting phenomenon. In the United States and the United Kingdom, over 40 percent of each population has received at least one dose of a vaccine and in the United States 29 percent have been fully vaccinated. By stark contrast, many European countries such as Germany, Belgium and Italy report partial vaccination percentages in the low 20s and full vaccination percentages in the single digits, according to the New York Times. Given that the European Union (EU) is a relatively similar size and has equal bargaining power with the United States and the United Kingdom, why is this vast disparity occurring? 

There are many possible explanations as to why the EU is lagging behind the United Kingdom and United States in terms of vaccinations; from a lack of uniformity in member-state health care systems and the recent blot clot concerns in the AstraZeneca vaccine (their primary vaccine contract) to cultural differences in public health perceptions, all contribute to the current low amount of vaccinations in the EU. However, the most prominent reason for the EU’s shortfalls is actually something much different — pharmaceutical contracts. 

Earlier in the pandemic, when vaccines were still being developed, many countries invested and partnered with private companies in order to help accelerate vaccine creation. The United States spent over $9 billion in vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical companies, not including the additional doses purchased after original contracts were set. For instance, the United States committed close to a billion dollars in development of the Moderna vaccine and close to two billion in the manufacturing and delivery of the Pfizer vaccine (Pfizer did not accept federal funding for vaccine research). Moreover, the United States contracted with Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and other companies, each for 100 million doses or more. Additionally, the United States and the United Kingdom have largely refrained from exporting domestically produced doses of vaccines such as Moderna and AstraZeneca, respectively. 

The EU, on the other hand, did not invest nearly as much in vaccine development nor did it cast as wide of a net in contracting with pharmaceutical companies. Instead, they took a more free market approach that focused their vaccine procurement on simply buying instead of development and production. The EU only spent around $3 billion on vaccines, and had significantly less restrictive vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical companies. Unlike the United States and the United Kingdom, as of late March the EU had exported almost 80 million European-produced doses worldwide to non-EU countries. For instance, Europe shipped a mere 16 million doses to member state Germany but exported 20 million doses to the United Kingdom. 

In short, the United States and the United Kingdom invested widely and early, and kept what they domestically produced, which has helped them to reach the reported vaccination levels. While it is important to note that there are a variety of other contributing factors to the EU’s failure, the fact that the EU did not invest heavily in development and did not block exports of doses are clearly the most significant contributors to their current vaccination crisis. 

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