As recently as last autumn, it was feared there would never be a Covid-19 vaccine. The United Kingdom, however, wagered otherwise. Long before the efficacy of the vaccine developed by Sarah Gilbert’s team at Oxford University and AstraZeneca had been established, the government ordered 100 million doses. This decision seems ever more prescient: Britain’s foresight has allowed it to vaccinate more than 24 million people, the highest share of the population of any major country after Israel and the UAE.
Europe, by contrast, which aspires to be a global superpower to rival the US and China, is the laggard of the developed world. While the UK has administered 38 vaccine doses per 100 people, the EU has managed just 11. Partly owing to this poor effort, Germany, France and Italy are now contending with third waves of Covid-19 as Britain slowly unlocks.
This debacle cannot be attributed to misfortune alone. The EU was slow to authorise the AstraZeneca vaccine and spent seven times less per head upfront than the UK and the US on vaccine development, procurement and production. Faced with a predictable shortfall in supply, the EU then sought to impose controls on vaccine exports to Northern Ireland – raising the spectre of the hard border it had previously resisted. The EU retreated after justified outrage.
On 15 March a group of EU countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine over fears that it could cause blood clots. But this decision was driven by politics, not science or data. There is no evidence that the vaccine causes blood clots. Around one adult in every 1,000 suffers a venous thrombosis every year, but of the 17 million people who have received the jab in the EU and the UK, a mere 37 have reported blood clots, according to AstraZeneca. In other words, the incidence appears to be lower, not higher, than among the general population.
In defence of their actions, European states have invoked the precautionary principle, a concept which originated in Germany in the 1970s and which echoes the medical principle to “first, do no harm”. The principle is a valuable one: as Harry Eyres wrote in the New Statesman last April, it strengthens the argument for pre-emptive intervention against threats such as pandemics and the climate crisis.
But far from justifying European states’ behaviour, it invalidates it. Any lives that will be saved by suspending the AstraZeneca vaccine are far outweighed by the number that will be lost to Covid-19.
This is not the first time that European leaders have resorted to junk science and scaremongering. In January the French president Emmanuel Macron declared that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for people over 65, a claim that was echoed in the German financial newspaper Handelsblatt. President Macron’s government later U-turned, but the damage was done. Even before the blood clot scare, millions of doses of the Oxford vaccine lay unused in Europe owing to such misinformation.
The EU’s self-inflicted woes are no cause for Schadenfreude. As well as causing thousands of avoidable deaths, the advance of Covid across the continent heightens the risk of new variants.
But the vaccine debacle challenges Europe’s progressive self-image. The continent that supposedly reveres the Enlightenment has disregarded empiricism and scientific inquiry. The continent that casts itself as a beacon of internationalism has succumbed to petty chauvinism. And the continent that claims to protect its citizens has left all too many defenceless.
The UK’s own pandemic record is not a proud one: a succession of late and haphazard lockdowns led to one of the highest recorded per capita Covid death rates in the world. It was slow to embrace preventive measures such as mandatory mask-wearing and mass testing. But the pioneering vaccine research of Professor Gilbert and her Oxford team, which will save innumerable lives, has been an example to the world. The European Union should heed an ancient proverb: physician, heal thyself.
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold