Saturday

8th May 2021

Column

The EU needs a global vaccination strategy - right now

The first crisis was one of scarcity. The next may be one of abundance. I am talking about the EU and Covid-19 vaccines, of course.

The slow vaccine roll-out over the last months cost the EU much credibility, but it seems that the tide is turning.

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  • When a block of 450 million citizens orders 2.6 billion vaccines, it should be made clear right away who else will profit from them in a global pandemic

Production capacity is increasing fast and since the EU's vaccine taskforce started controlling the production and exports of vaccines, many more doses have become available.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is now optimistic that by the end of July, 70 percent of adults in the EU will be vaccinated.

The further the vaccination campaign progresses, the more people will ask: what about the rest of the world? The EU should answer the question loud and clear now before it is drowned out by a rising chorus of criticism.

Already, many players, including the World Health Organization's Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, demand that the EU support the waiving of intellectual property rights of vaccine makers.

Thierry Breton, who heads the EU's vaccine taskforce, thinks it would not help now, but his arguments seem to be of a practical nature when the issue is also highly political.

Though desirable, waiving patents is no panacea. There are many other obstacles on the way to vaccinating the world, including shortages of raw materials, the logistics of getting vaccines to places, as well as a lack of expertise and know-how - especially regarding the new mRNA vaccine technology.

Add problems on the demand side, such as significant vaccine scepticism in many countries, and it becomes clear that it is not all about patents or even supplies as such. The US does not have supply issues anymore, but it now faces a serious demand problem.

Brussels wavering

While the EU has become decisive in vaccinating EU citizens, it is wavering in relation to the rest of the world.

In its communication in January, the commission promised a vaccine-sharing mechanism but the details remained vague. The bloc recently sent some 600,000 doses to the western Balkans and France also started sharing its vaccine doses independently.

This is a piecemeal approach, however, and will not be enough, especially now that India stopped exporting vaccines to poorer countries.

Instead, the EU should launch an ambitious global part to its vaccine strategy that needs to include specific, measurable commitments. More global leadership is needed. The Biden administration has donated a lot to COVAX, but it is only now hesitatingly starting to give away some of its stockpile and allowing exports of raw materials.

How should this EU strategy look?

First, it should not emulate the US in over-caution in favour of its own citizens and rather start the purchase and export of vaccines to other countries or to COVAX immediately - for example by agreeing that over the months a regularly increasing percentage of vaccines received is passed on to others.

Second, the mandate of the Breton taskforce should be expanded to include a global focus on supporting the development of production capacity wherever possible and matching European companies with counterparts abroad. Intellectual property rights should be waived.

Third, in view of all the challenges, even more funds and support should be given to COVAX as the main mechanism of support for many countries and any logistical support made available.

Lastly, the communication surrounding the EU's approach to global vaccination needs to change. The EU is already engaged globally through COVAX, but there seems to be no clear mission beyond Europe.

The headlines are dominated by the EU ordering ever more vaccines. But when a block of 450 million citizens orders 2.6 billion vaccines, it should be made clear right away who else will profit from them in a global pandemic.

'All in it together'?

Lofty slogans like 'we are all in this together' or 'nobody is left behind' do not sound genuine when the overwhelming majority of vaccine doses is reserved for a few rich countries. The first person in a queue should not tell the entire long queue that they are all in it together.

Instead, we need straight talk. The EU was badly hit.

The two countries with the highest fatality rate in the world are Hungary and the Czech Republic. Twelve of the 20 worst-hit countries are EU member states.

In authoritarian states like Russia, governments are not accountable to their citizens and can send vaccines abroad.

For democratically-elected governments in the EU, this is more difficult. They must start at home.

Honest communication will reassure both EU citizens and people in other parts of the world. They will understand if the EU says: 'We are sorry that we were so absorbed with our own problems, but things are coming under control and now we are here for all of you.'

For many people in Brussels, the recovery plan is the number one item on the agenda right now, but global vaccination is even more important.

Apart from the sheer humanitarian need, any hesitation in vaccinating the entire world carries massive risks: beyond prolonged disruptions, experts fear the development of new mutants that may be resistant to current vaccines. All efforts to fight the pandemic could collapse like a house of cards.

A Euro-Vax strategy must be bold. It must be of the 'whatever it takes, as fast as possible' type. If done well, it will save many lives and help protect us all.

As a side effect, it will also do more for the EU's standing in the world than anything else it has done until now.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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