First there was a fiasco, then an outrage and now a scandal. The fiasco was the European Union’s vaccine procurement programme — a cock-up of continental proportions. There were so many pointless delays that the EU found itself weeks behind the UK in granting regulatory approval — and months behind in working with suppliers to resolve production issues.
The outrage was the subsequent blame-shifting manoeuvre by the European Commission. While the accusation that AstraZeneca was diverting vaccine supplies from the EU to the UK was absurd, the consequent threat to impose a hard border on the island of Ireland was shockingly irresponsible. Widespread condemnation forced the Commission to back down.
The scandal is what happened next. For a start, and despite the fiasco and the outrage, no one has resigned — least of all Ursula von der Leyen, whose cool-and-calm exterior conceals a heart of beating ineptitude.
Then came a spectacular display of sour grapes. After all the fuss about not getting enough of the Oxford AZ vaccine, various EU powers-that-be have undermined its reputation.
It all kicked off with a report in Handelsblatt on the 25 January. The piece featured a claim — from a mysterious source within the German government — that the vaccine was only 8% efficient among the over-65s. Unsurprisingly, this made headlines around the world.
Could this possibly be true? No, said AstraZeneca, the figure had no basis in their research or anyone else’s. So where did it come from? An investigation for the BMJ by Hristio Boytchev tried to get to bottom of the matter, but all we can say for sure is that an unnamed source in the German health ministry was very keen to get the fake news out there.
In any case, the murkiness soon became manifest. Within days of the anonymous briefing, the German and French governments announced that they would not be allowing the use of the vaccine among the over-65s.
In comments to the press on the 29 January, Emmanuel Macron made it clear what the French attitude would be: “everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.”
But “everything” did not point to that conclusion. The British had already approved the vaccine (on the 30 December) and had been successfully using it since. On the same day as Macron’s remarks to the press, the European Medicine Agency (EMA) also approved the use of the vaccine — among all adult age groups. Furthermore, they specifically addressed the issue of older age groups:
“There are not yet enough results in older participants (over 55 years old) to provide a figure for how well the vaccine will work in this group. However, protection is expected, given that an immune response is seen in this age group and based on experience with other vaccines…”
As Tom Chivers explained for UnHerd here, it’s entirely reasonable to expect encouraging results from trials conducted mostly on younger age groups to hold true for their seniors, too. And yet the President of France saw fit to state that “the real problem on AstraZeneca is that it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to.”
If anything, the vaccine has exceeded expectations. Results from England show that inoculation has cut the risk of serious illness in the over-80s by around 80% — building on similarly impressive results from Scotland. That Handelsblatt claim wasn’t just wrong, but wrong by an order of magnitude.
Note, also, that these results are for a single shot of the vaccine. The second shot should produce even better outcomes. Nevertheless, the degree of protection already achieved has triumphantly vindicated the decision to spread out the shots in order to vaccinate as many vulnerable people as possible. More reason, then, for Macron to eat his words — because as well as pouring doubt on the efficacy of the virus, he poured scorn on the UK’s first shot first strategy, stating: “I’m not sure that it’s very serious.”
Well, it is serious, as are the consequences of the EU’s sour grapes. The irony of the supply dispute with AstraZeneca is that shots of the vaccine are now going unused in the EU, because intended recipients (like the older under-65s and health workers) are worried there might be something wrong with it. In Germany, regional governments are pleading with Berlin for permission to reassign doses to people in lower priority groups who are willing to take it.
The contrast with the British experience becomes more embarrassing by the day. Though one would expect Covid deaths to fall as a result of the UK strict lockdown, they’ve been tumbling fastest among the most extensively inoculated age groups — compelling evidence that our vaccine strategy is working.
The Europe Union is now waking up to what it needlessly missed out on. Worried EU governments are now desperately reassuring their populations that the Oxford AZ vaccine is safe and effective. The French have just relaxed the restriction on the vaccine’s use among the over 65s. The Germans are likely to follow suit. Thomas Mertens, head of Germany’s expert panel on vaccine use, has promised an “update” to the current regulations. He was at pains to point out that the existing restriction were never about safety concerns and added that “somehow the whole thing went kind of badly wrong.” Yeah, “somehow”.
In the latest blow to European solidarity, Denmark and Austria have chosen to go their own way, obtaining vaccines via Israel; Slovakia has joined Hungary in acquiring the Russia Sputnik vaccine, believed to be safe although yet to be approved by Brussels; while Poland is considering a deal with China.
And yet the EU’s leaders continue to send the wrong signals. Last week, Angela Merkel said that she would not take the Oxford AZ vaccine herself. Her British defenders point out that this is only because she is 66 and thus just above the age at which the current restrictions kick-in. But, as usual, her apologists miss the point. The rules — which she is ultimately responsible for — are ridiculous and should not exist in the first place. As leader of her country, millions of people will follow her lead.
Of course, hers is not the only screw-up in this pandemic. There isn’t a country in the world that hasn’t got it wrong repeatedly — and the UK is clearly no exception. However, it’s important that we distinguish between the different kinds of mistake.
About a year ago, Britain should have gone into lockdown at least two weeks before it actually did. However, our Government was acting on official scientific advice that was unfortunately wrong. Other failures arise out of the sheer scale of the challenge, test-and-trace being a prime example. We can test at scale, but tracing is supremely difficult when transmission is so widespread. It might have helped if we’d closed our borders at the outset — but that’s an illustration of a third kind of mistake, those that happen when governments are faced with impossible dilemmas. Choosing the lesser of two evils isn’t easy when they’re both overwhelmingly horrible.
The mistakes made by Brussels, Paris and Berlin over recent weeks have been of a different type, and were entirely avoidable. In deciding policy towards AstraZeneca and its vaccine, the scientific advice (from the EMA) wasn’t wrong, the challenges weren’t insurmountable and the choices far from impossible. There was no question as to the safety of the vaccine. There was a degree of uncertainty as to its effectiveness, but good reason to expect a beneficial outcome. After all, for millions of elderly and vulnerable Europeans the alternative isn’t a better vaccine, but no vaccine — a famously ineffective treatment.
The mistake made in this matter was not an honest one. There’s only one motivation that fits with the facts — spite.
As an institution, the EU displays a pattern of behaviour that in an individual would be diagnosed as petty narcissism. We all know the type of person: the character flaw isn’t obvious at first, but they soon give themselves away. In place of the usual give-and-take of a healthy human relationship, they think they’re doing you a favour just by allowing you to interact with them. Furthermore, you will be expected to pay for the privilege. This means abiding by their rules; having to guess what they want without being told; prioritising your relationship with them above any other attachment. Resist their nonsense and you’ll be accused of being the unreasonable one.
If an impasse is reached or you walk away, they won’t wish you well. Indeed, like Jean-Claude Juncker insisting that “Brexit cannot be a success”, they’ll want to you fail without them. And, of course, that’ll be your fault, not theirs. It’s abusive and manipulating, but ultimately self-destructive.
Instead of bullying and then belittling AstraZeneca and the UK, the EU could have chosen the path of cooperation. Even if they genuinely did have questions about the vaccine and the UK’s vaccination strategy they could have kept an open mind — and thus the option to follow suit. As it is, they’ve ensured that any change of mind can only come with a maximum of political embarrassment and humiliation.
Well, never mind — let them pay with their blushes. After all, their people are paying with their lives.