Ursula von der Leyen . Credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty

February 2, 2021   6 mins

One of the most striking developments in the early months of coronavirus was the way that the disaster very soon became a contest between states. Always heralded as a textbook case of the need for global cooperation, pandemics turned out to be prime examples of global competition. Indeed, once media outlets were able to compare the outbreaks in different countries, most public discussions started to resemble sports commentary — “How your country compares”, as the Financial Times put it.

Some countries were praised for the way they were able to flatten the curve. Others seemed to compete only to avoid being last. There were long debates about the most appropriate metrics to evaluate relative performance and elaborate explanations of why some excelled while others failed. For a while, Sweden seemed to be a winner. Months later it was declared a loser. Germany went from exceptional to average, but New Zealand kept surpassing itself, announcing by the end of the year that it was now reaching the benchmark for coronavirus elimination. One newspaper wrote about Italy, in lines evoking a story worthy of the Olympics, how “Spooked by the dramatic death toll in the Lombardy region, the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte sprang into action, using the license he won through emergency decrees to get the country’s famously sclerotic administration moving. That helped Italy flatten the curve more quickly than anyone thought possible.”

Morbid league tables multiplied. They were criticised, of course, but most often because the picture they offered was too static to reflect the realities of the ongoing competition. With the arrival of the vaccines, state competition took a new form, but not a milder one: an ugly global race for enough doses in which the losers are denied a quick path out of the pandemic.

Suddenly, the laggards from the previous iteration of the game seemed for the first time to be ahead. The United Kingdom was the first jurisdiction to approve the new vaccine and quickly pulled ahead of other large advanced economies in the race to vaccinate its population, a rare pandemic success for the country. The United States followed, with the European Union falling behind, but none could match the success of Israel. In just two weeks in December the state succeeded in vaccinating close to 20% of its citizens, leading the world by a very large measure and drawing on its origins as a tightly-knit small nation fighting for survival. The country is now very close to the 70% mark that experts deem enough to put an end to infection growth.

The vaccine wars quickly escalated. When the European Union received a string of bad news about interrupted or reduced supplies from both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, it responded by threatening to block vaccine exports across the channel (a plan to reestablish a hard border in Northern Ireland was later dropped). This was the perfect background for the intense competition between the two jurisdictions that Brexit had set up in advance. On 29 January, a febrile day in European politics, Brussels put forward a legal mechanism requiring that vaccine exports be subject to an authorisation by member states.

Without the production of a valid authorisation, the export of such goods will be banned. The instrument states that it was “not the intention of the Union to restrict exports any more than absolutely necessary”, a stirring admission that it can in fact be used to stop the flow of vaccine doses to the United Kingdom. More damaging, the measure was intended to win a political or even an intellectual dispute, but it promised little in terms of actually delivering more vaccine doses.

It was surprising to see such a carnivore approach from a political bloc that detests carnivore behaviour and, more important, has never excelled at it. It could have been avoided had a forceful approach been adopted much earlier. There is a lot that went wrong with the European Commission’s vaccination strategy. But before everything else, there was complacency.

Back in the summer, the predominant feeling in Brussels and many European capitals was that the virus could be controlled through savvy policy measures. The contrast with the health calamity in the United States made European officials forget that the pandemic was in fact a state of emergency requiring a decisive approach to vaccination. Instead, most believed that vaccines would eventually be needed to root out the problem, but the process could be conducted against the background of a waning pandemic, at least in Europe. There was no urgency in signing the necessary contracts with the most promising manufacturers, with protracted haggling over prices further delaying the process.

We now know that time was of critical importance and that the sooner procedures could be tested and perfected, the sooner a high yield of vaccine doses could be expected. The lack of urgency was also reflected in the attempt to bring a number of exogenous considerations into the process. For many months the European Union seemed more interested in scoring political points on solidarity, market power and negotiating clout than in focusing laser-like on the task at hand: getting as many vaccines as fast as possible into the arms of its citizens. It was easy to see all these problems coming. They were like bad omens and they kept piling up.

The vaccine wars are an instance of the broader genus of technology wars. The reason one could easily guess the European Union would struggle to find its footing is that the bloc has an old-standing problem with technology, seeing it more as a threat than an imperative. And it misses the fundamental nature of the imperative.

First, advanced technology is by definition scarce and competitive. It cannot be normalised: there is always a better way to obtain the same outcome through superior methods. The pandemic was a great teacher in this respect, showing that technology can always move faster and achieve more, or that we are chasing a moving frontier — but the lesson is applicable to normal times as well. During a pandemic, it makes a vital difference whether vaccines are available now or in two month’s time, both in terms of saving lives and resuscitating the economy. This was never understood in Brussels, with the Commission insisting it had secured billions of doses but forgetting to consider when these doses would be available. Even in normal times, being able to lead in key technological areas will sooner or later be translated into more visible forms of global power.

Second, the European Union as a whole — its officials, politicians and organic intellectuals — seems unable to understand that technology is political. You cannot keep it out of politics and this means that politics must adjust to technology at least as much and probably more than technology must adjust to politics. There is no way to be a technological leader without taking risky decisions, without embracing the possibility of failure and without being generous with money and rules — two higher divinities the European Commission will never sacrifice.

It is revealing that, while Britain placed a venture capitalist at the head of its vaccine programme, the European Union opted for a trade negotiator. It was a puzzling choice. What does vaccine procurement have to do with the creation of legal rules? Or consider the news report about how Matt Hancock was impressed by the end of the movie Contagion, in which vaccines are not enough for everyone and have to be awarded by a lottery. One advisor told Sky: “He was always really aware from the very start, first that the vaccine was really important, second that when a vaccine was developed we would see an almighty global scramble for this thing.” You may smile, but whether it comes from movies or scientific papers, a “technological imagination” is the necessary beginning of good policy today.

The main question posed by the pandemic will be the one concerning technology. The responses adopted by governments around the world seem to fall into two main categories. Those countries able to leverage new and emerging technologies to fight the virus have done better in limiting the number of cases and fatalities, while managing to keep most of their economies and societies operational. The countries unable to use technology had to rely on lockdowns, quarantines, generalised closures and other physical restrictions — the same methods used to fight the Spanish Flu more than a century ago and, in many cases, with the same slow, painful results.

I now fear that the European Union will find itself in the impossible situation of having to prolong some of the existing restrictions beyond the summer, while both Britain and the United States start to normalise. That is the cost of the vaccine delays: a very high cost in lives, prestige and further economic losses.

The current crisis has the potential to spiral out of control. The imperative was to reduce the risks of that happening, no matter what the immediate financial cost. But again, to think technologically rather than legally is something that Brussels struggles with. Economies of scale, exponentials, tail risks — all foreign concepts. If we come out of this crisis with a single widely shared belief, if some previously ignored idea could become a new consensus, it will likely be a recognition that the history of technology is far from concluded.

There is no way to stop technological progress, even if, by hypothesis, one were happy with the current plateau. How these troubling facts force a revolution in our political ideas will be an interesting story to follow. Nowhere will it take sharper tones than in the European Union, where politics and technology continue to be at loggerheads.

Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese political scientist, politician, business strategist, author and is currently a non-resident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington. He was the Portuguese Europe Minister from 2013-2015