Vaccine-induced fear and loathing

By Simon Gentry

It’s unlikely that we’ll see the full political fallout of the pandemic for many years, but a slow vaccine roll-out seems to be denting support for the SNP Government in Edinburgh and the Labour administration in Wales.  This pales into insignificance however, when compared to what appears to be happening on the Continent.

The Netherlands has now endured three days and nights of rioting and destruction, including an arson attack on a Covid-19 testing facility, as the public rebel against curfews and restrictions.  The real drama, however, and one that has the potential to bring down more than one government, is playing out most publicly in Brussels and Berlin.  The problem is the failure by the European Commission to order enough vaccine, early enough.

A group of EU member states began negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies at around the same time as the UK did and were close to an agreement, but the Commission worried that these countries would secure supply ahead of others.  Invoking solidarity and the argument that the EU as a large entity could drive a better bargain, the Commission demanded and won control of the negotiations. For a variety of contested reasons months drifted by and few orders were actually placed by the Commission, allowing other countries to sign up ahead of the Europeans.

The problem was exacerbated in Amsterdam.  While the UK’s medicines agency, the MHRA, and the FDA were reviewing test and trial data from the pharmaceutical companies as it came in, the European Medicines Agency insisted that the data had to be complete and finished before they would look at it.  This means that only the Pfizer/BioNtec and Moderna vaccines, which are tricky to store and deliver, have been approved for use in the EU.

The result of this is that while Israel, a couple of small gulf states, the UK and even the US are vaccinating millions of people daily, programmes have hardy begun in many EU states. The political pressure is building from the public and business leaders for something to be done, pressure which boiled over when Pfizer announced it needed to reduce production temporarily while it retooled its factories to deal with increased demand and AstraZeneca said it would have to reduce the amount allocated to the EU – which has still not approved it anyway – as a result of production problems it is facing. 

The frustration, fear and panic gripping the Commission exploded last night in an announcement that the EU might require advance notification of vaccine exports, thereby implying an ability to requisition vaccine ordered by other countries – including the UK – but manufactured in the EU, to secure enough supply.

The scale of the crisis is underlined by the strange tale of the briefing by a German ‘government official’ given to the respected business paper Handelsblatt. The unnamed official allegedly said that the Oxford/AZ vaccine was only 8% effective in over 65s.  This was denied by AstraZeneca overnight and eventually the German government, but not before the figure was being quoted all over the world.  In fact, what the official said was that the German authorities were concerned that only 8% of those in the AZ trial were over 65, not that it didn’t work, but the damage in confidence may already be done.  This has created the impression in the pharmaceutical industry that the EU is fighting over a vaccine it doesn’t believes works, hasn’t approved and hasn’t ordered enough of.

On a brighter note, there are encouraging signs that another large pharmaceutical company will announce good news later this week, which may help relieve the pressure.

Here in the UK, the number of deaths of people within 28 days of a positive COVID-10 test result has now passed 100,000, a grim milestone if there ever was one.