Blinded by Eurocentrism? The EU-Oxford-AstraZeneca quarrel

Following months of depressing media coverage detailing rising Covid-19 cases, deaths, and unemployment levels, the roll-out of the UK’s vaccination programme has brought with it some much-needed good news. Recent reports suggest that immunisation efforts in Scotland have reduced the risk of hospital admission by up to 94%.

Across the channel, however, a different story is emerging. Having set up a scheme that centralises vaccine acquisition and distribution for all 27 member states, the European Union is facing a gargantuan challenge that has been accentuated by supply shortages from AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech. Whilst almost a third of UK citizens have received at least one Covid-19 jab, most European countries have vaccinated less than a tenth of their populations. The British-Swedish pharmaceutical alliance, Oxford-AstraZeneca, is at the centre of an unfolding dispute about vaccine supplies.

A quarrel between the EU and AstraZeneca kicked off in January after it became clear that, owing to production problems, the pharmaceutical company would not be able to uphold its obligation to provide the EU with the agreed number of vaccines. In August, the EU agreed to a deal for 300 million doses, a third of which would be delivered by the end of March. By current calculations, however, the EU expects to receive just 40% of this number. At the end of January, the European Commission published its contract with AstraZeneca in the hope of pressurising the company into meeting its targets. AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, maintained, however, that the contract compelled the company only to make its “best effort” to meet agreed figures, and did not bind it to specific deadlines.

In the latest development, on Friday, a shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses bound for Australia was blocked by the Italian government. This is the first time that a new EU regulation, allowing member states to refuse authorisation for the exportation of vaccines, has been put into practice. This controversial export authorisation policy permits such obstructions if the company in question is exporting doses despite having failed to first fulfil its commitments to the bloc. In a statement, the Italian foreign ministry justified its actions, blaming the “vaccine shortage in the EU and Italy, the delays in supply of AstraZeneca vaccines” and the fact that Australia is not listed as a “vulnerable” country.

This quarrel has already severely eroded trust in AstraZeneca on the continent. A recent report by the New York Times revealed that ‘two weeks after the first delivery of 1.45 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Germany, only 270,986 ha[d] been administered’. The report explains how many German citizens are reluctant to receive the AstraZeneca jab, blaming weeks of negative news coverage in the German media, which has circulated stories of adverse reactions and represented the vaccine as inferior to its Pfizer-BioNTech equivalent.

One cannot help but feel, however, that this dispute overlooks the bigger picture. Whilst European countries (the UK included) are squabbling over relative minutiae, many middle- and lower-income countries have been unable to even contemplate launching large-scale vaccination programmes. It is predicted that most poor nations “will take until 2024 to achieve mass Covid-19 immunisation” and in the meantime will continue to suffer the human and economic costs associated with the pandemic.

Already, the Covax programme—a global initiative that aims to facilitate equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines—has secured around 700 million doses. This, however, is barely enough to vaccinate 10% of the populations of those 67 low-income countries who have no independent purchasing power and are relying entirely upon the programme for vaccine supplies. Meanwhile, The People’s Vaccine Alliance reports that “rich nations representing just 14% of the world’s population [have] bought up more than half (53%) of all the most promising vaccines”. Indeed, an article published by the British Medical Journal in December revealed that many higher-income countries have placed vaccine orders that, if fulfilled, would deliver enormous surpluses. It reports that Canada has reserved enough vaccines to immunise each of its citizens five times over, whilst the United States’ order exceeds its requirements by a factor of four and the UK’s by a factor of three.

Rich, vaccine-producing nations have an obligation to help those less well-off, not just from a moral standpoint but also a pragmatic one. As director general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explains, “a me-first approach [to vaccination] might serve short-term political interests, but it is self-defeating and will lead to a protracted recovery, with trade and travel continuing to suffer.” Until countries unite to take an equitable and global approach to vaccination, the Covid-19 virus will continue to thrive in other parts of the world, risking the mutation of further dangerous variants and jeopardising any recovery efforts.

 

Image: Diana Polekhina via unsplash.com

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