Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the European Commission, got it exactly right: Covid vaccine wars would be simply “stupid”. The experienced Luxembourger was talking about mounting tensions between the EU and the UK over the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, after his Brussels successor, Ursula von der Leyen, threatened London with export bans.
“This cannot be dealt with in a war atmosphere,” Juncker told the BBC the other day. “We are not enemies.” Threats of banning continentally-manufactured vaccines could cause “major reputational damage” to the EU, he warned.
The immediate background to these ominous comments is the remarkable success of Boris Johnson’s government in rolling out the vaccination program across the country: around 45 out of 100 Brits have now been given their first jab, compared to just 13 across the EU’s 27 member states, where infection rates are now rising worryingly. (The US is on 38 per 100).
Britain’s speedy response was based in part on a government decision in January to prioritize the first dose of a vaccine, with a second dose up to 12 weeks later, a larger gap than originally planned.
The EU, by contrast, has been widely criticized for being too slow, cautious and overly budget conscious in its responses. To ensure that each member state started administering vaccines at the same time, Brussels and EU capitals opted to seek approval for them through the European Medicines Agency, a slower route than those available to national regulators. Von der Leyen admitted later that the EU had been “too optimistic.”
Brexit, of course, is also part of this grim story. Britain’s controversial decision to leave the EU after 47 years was followed – with impeccable timing – at the start of 2020 by the outbreak of the pandemic. Johnson was staggeringly incompetent in the first months, but has since overseen an impressively efficient launch of the vaccines, resulting in a surge in his own popularity ratings.
EU leaders held a virtual summit last week to discuss the crisis and backed the toughening of vaccine export controls, though they stopped short of announcing an actual ban. But a more conciliatory statement also emphasised the importance of global supply chains needed to produce vaccinations and what was defined as “a win-win situation.”
By contrast the French President, Emmanuel Macron, said he supported blocking vaccine exports. His ally and foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, predicted that Britain will struggle to source second Covid jabs for those who have already had their first dose. And he insisted that the EU will not be “blackmailed” into exporting vaccines to solve the problem. Johnson signalled that a ban that extended beyond AstraZeneca’s disputed supply could also block jabs produced for BioNTech/Pfizer in Belgium, adding – with uncharacteristic under-statement – that blockades were not “sensible.”
Other EU leaders said they hoped that “acceptable” export controls would never be used. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, regretfully announcing a new Easter lockdown, said that “the British variant” of Covid had led to a third wave in her country, unintentionally echoing the line of the former US president Donald Trump, who dubbed coronavirus “kung-flu” and his democratic rival as “Beijing Biden.” In France experts have taken to referring to the highly contagious “English variant.“
Back in February the US announced that it would not donate any doses to poor countries until it had a sufficient supply for its own population. And shortly after that India’s government, which has also performed badly, ordered a local plant involved in the production of Astra-Zeneca to halt exports until local needs have been met.
EU member states and post-Brexit UK are wealthy compared to some countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where governments are struggling to cope with the pandemic. Overall the events of a turbulent year have highlighted the stark difference between the developed world and under-developed countries and regions and have increased tensions between them.
Israel, for example, has undertaken one of the most successful rollouts in the world but most Palestinians in the occupied territories have not been vaccinated. The UAE, a wealthy Gulf state, has achieved similar success, but nearby Yemen, already ravaged by war, has not. Singapore and Taiwan, with their experience of SARS, have seen minimal deaths. In the poorest countries, however, hardly anyone has been vaccinated.
These are all vital issues because vaccines are now viewed as a lifeline to a return to normality and the only realistic hope to stem the loss of 2.7 million lives – so far – and which constitutes the greatest humanitarian and economic disaster of the 21st century. No-one is safe until the entire world is safe.
Sensible voices have repeatedly called for a fairer approach. “Once you start putting up barriers, other people start putting up barriers globally,” as Micheál Martin, Ireland’s prime minister, has said. But the US, UK and EU have for months blocked a proposal at the World Trade Organization, put forward by India and South Africa, to waive intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines. In the big picture, cooperation and dialogue, not threats of boycotts or conflict, is the only way to end this terrifyingly emergency.