European countries have long prided themselves on their strong welfare states, including public-health systems. They are also convinced that the state has a big role to play in fostering the recovery after the pandemic.
The painfully slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines across the European Union is undermining any claims that government knows best, whether at a national or supranational level. Unless Europe gets its mass inoculation programs right, quickly, it will be hard to believe that its political model can deliver better results to its citizens than what’s available in the rest of the world.
Europe hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory during the pandemic. The continent suffered a brutal first wave in the spring, as the new coronavirus revealed gaping holes in the health-care sectors of many countries such as Italy and Spain. During the summer, the EU appeared to cope better than the U.S., spurring hopes that it had developed effective track-and-trace systems that could help avoid new lockdowns. However, a second wave of Covid-19 during the autumn dashed any claims of European superiority. Only some countries in Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand, have managed the pandemic competently.
Unfortunately, the EU also seems to be botching the latest, and perhaps most important, stage of virus management: mass inoculation. The European Medical Agency is taking its time to approve vaccines that have been deemed viable elsewhere. Its delay on the joint effort from AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford is understandable: The trial of this jab has been marred by problems that justify a more cautious approach than the U.K.’s speedy approval. However, the slow study of the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine and the one from Moderna Inc. (still waiting for the green light) is much harder to understand.
The vaccine’s rollout has been even worse. Germany, France, Italy and Spain — the EU’s largest countries — have together inoculated less than half the number of people who’ve received a jab in Israel, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. This is despite those four EU nations having nearly 30 times Israel’s population.
Germany’s effort has been much speedier than other EU states, and Italy is at least providing a dashboard to show its progress. But Spain’s communication has been less forthcoming, and France could only manage an embarrassing 516 jabs in the first week of the program. While the EMA delays and the Christmas holidays didn’t help, there are few signs that the continent is catching up quickly as it struggles with bureaucracy, a scarcity of trained medical personnel and equipment.
Europe can claim some successes. The first authorized vaccine was developed in a German lab, even though it took a U.S. company to scale it up. However, even in research and development there have been notable fiascos, including the vaccine efforts of France’s Sanofi, which have been pushed back until the end of 2021 at the earliest.
The European Commission may have failed to spot which vaccines looked most promising as it placed its orders this summer. It is having to belatedly increase its orders of the BioNTech-Pzifer and Moderna jabs, two treatments on which the Americans had bet earlier.
The case for speedy vaccination is so overwhelming that one wonders why Europe is dithering. An effective and fast mass-inoculation program will save thousands of lives, allow countries to reopen their economies sooner and avoid the psychological pain of endless lockdowns. It can also limit the risk of mutations such as the so-called “U.K. variant,” which can make the Sars-CoV-2 virus a lot harder to control.
Even the presence of production bottlenecks doesn’t justify the lax approach: It makes sense to just use whatever you have available to immunize as many people as possible, instead of leaving doses sitting idly in a fridge while a government pulls together its distribution plans.
This effort isn’t easy. Politicians may need to train more medical staff, open up special venues and win over those who fear that these vaccines haven’t been tested adequately. But these tasks should have begun in earnest months ago, as soon as it became clear that one or more effective vaccines was likely.
With the emergence of seemingly more virulent forms of Covid and the approval of vaccines with which to fight them, there are no excuses for dallying now. Europe must inject some needed dynamism into its vaccination efforts. Its reputation for competent government — and for its prized social model — hinges on what it will show its citizens and the world.
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