Recent days have seen EU Officials referring to a vaccine war between the UK and the EU, even suggesting that UK Government (UKGOV) was fanning the flames. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Passions may have subsided for now and it is clear the UK has no wish to stir any vaccine nationalism, but from elsewhere there has been a different story.
The EU was informed in the last week of January that it would receive from Astra Zeneca less of the Oxford AZ vaccine than had been anticipated in coming weeks. This came on top of reduced BioNTech-Pfizer supplies due to factory upgrading taking place. The programme for the provision of vaccine to EU countries was in disarray. Senior EU officials’ reaction were extraordinary, as were those of certain politicians particularly in Germany, France and Italy. Those officials alleged their contract with AZ contained an absolute promise to deliver a certain amount of vaccine in a specific time frame – this proved to be a lie. As AZ had contracted only to use “reasonable best efforts” so to do, which in lay terms means to try reasonably hard, but it is not an absolute promise.
Panic in Brussels led to the introduction of regulation enabling an EU nation to refuse permission for vaccine made in that nation to be exported outside the EU, illustrating protectionism is alive and well. Then Brussels proposed that controls be established to stop vaccine being exported from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, that is a border control between the two countries. Outrage broke out in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere and so Brussels rapidly retracted. That the EU Commission felt so glibly able to propose such a measure conflicts somewhat with its passionate protection at all costs of the Good Friday Agreement in Brexit talks as a negotiating tool. True colours at last expose the disingenuous posturing of the Brussels approach. This incident has seriously tarnished further the standing of Brussels much vaunted international values.
The German Medical Regulator said it could not recommend usage of the Oxford AZ vaccine in over 65s, but then Germany has, outside the EU vaccine programme, procured for itself a separate supply of BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, a German product. Just before the EU Medicines Agency announced approval of the Oxford AZ vaccine for use in all age groups, President Macron said, “everything points to thinking the AZ vaccine is quasi-ineffective on people over 65, some say those 60 years or older”. His health minister has repeated the allegation, to undermine the vaccine it seems maliciously, potentially discouraging people from accepting it and so risking more lives. They have joined the ranks of the reckless or hateful anti-vaxxers who continue to threaten the programmes of vaccination across the world. Senior Germans sought the banning of exports of BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine to the UK. It seems that French irresponsibility may in part be aggravated by the fact that France has dropped its national attempt to develop a vaccine, and that French company Sanofi, working with UK’s Glaxo, has hit snags delaying its testing programme by some months. Such nationalism perhaps is leading to unbalanced behaviour which is prejudicing the fight against Covid.
It is wise that UKGOV and Boris Johnson did not respond to this call to arms, but maintained dignity, commenting only that blocking exports was not the constructive way forward. Confirmation was obtained in a couple of days that the EU would not disturb supply to the UK under contracts which it has for vaccines.
The Observer headline of 31st January read ‘This vaccine crisis has shown the EU at its worst”. The Times of 1 February included a commentary by Peter Tiede, chief political editor of German newspaper Bild, recording the disaster of the EU contracting process for and delivery of vaccine, and the disgrace of Ursula Von Der Leyen, a native German and leader of the European Commission. His commentary is highly emotional. This absurd behaviour by The EU Commission and European politicians may serve as a useful warning against future vaccine nationalism and vaccine wars which might otherwise flare up in the global battle to control Covid. It is to be hoped that the EU can rapidly accelerate its roll out of jabs across the 27 nations, catching the UK up so that the entire continent can get Covid under control as quickly as possible.
The UK has indicated that it may eventually be in a position to share with the EU any excess vaccines available to it, as well as using them to support low- income countries. It is good that the UK is the lead sponsor of Covax. However, the UK has far still to travel in its own programme, and there are bound to be more bumps in the road. No time for any country or people to be complacent.
VACCINE SUCCESSES NEED GLOBAL CELEBRATION AND DEPOLITICISATION
An undoubted success story in the UK has been the story of the Vaccine Taskforce (VTF). It was formed in April 2020 by UKGOV with Sir Patrick Vallance a major advocate, to develop the vaccination programme, getting the vaccines and a future vaccine strategy. It was Chaired by Kate Bingham, a senior venture capitalist. As a Government body, VTF unusually combines private sector technical and manufacturing expertise with the Civil Service. Early on the UK also chose not to participate in the EU procurement scheme, principally because the UK would not have been allowed any say in the selection of drug companies, choice of vaccines, pricing, strategy or distribution. It would be neutered and dependent on an EU with nations at the time not necessarily well disposed to it. For that decision, UKGOV was pilloried by political opponents, for example David Schneider saying such non-participation was part of the Brexit death cult. Munro Wilson of the Liberal party described Government unwillingness to work with the EU as “unforgiveable”. Angela Rayner, Deputy leader of the Labour Party said “cronyism stinks” about the appointment of Kate Bingham, for no remuneration, as she is married to a Tory MP and Old Etonian!
Kate Bingham is now a national hero, with a Guardian reporter “raising a 21-syringe salute”. Without vaunting in detail the VTF’s achievements, suffice to say the UK has the most advanced and best organised vaccination programme, being implemented now, among the major nations of the world. And a long-term vaccine strategy to be a world leader, a global centre of excellence, harnessing all the relevant expertise in the UK.
Perhaps the VTF represents a model, a lesson for the future, as to how to combine private and public sector expertise to develop an industrial sector with world leading capacity.
If the UK vaccination strategy is a success, it will be due in no small part to the VTF. That success is much needed from the point of view of the United States, the EU and the world as a whole. This is simply because a worldwide vaccination programme to control Covid depends on enough individuals accepting vaccination. The Times news of 1 February highlights the problem: the headline says, “Half of Americans would refuse jab even if free”. And the article says: A YOUGov poll of December found that only 47% of Americans would be willing to get a jab; India 69%; UK 73%; Germany 44%; France 26%. The same article earlier referred to antivaxxers spreading fake news about vaccines. It is clear that within Europe there is no consistent messaging. The UK has less of an antivax issue. If an anti-vaccine attitude takes root in many countries then no matter how many doses get made, if there are not enough willing arms, the fight will be at severe risk of being lost.
Vaccine success stories, visible evidence that it works, have the best chance of persuading vaccine sceptics.And a global communication programme advocating vaccine is needed with all nations participating. Would it be a good idea if the U.S., EU and UK could combine in a common story to persuade the world, with a consistent message on social and all other media, a global advertising campaign. The open support of all influential broadcasters such as BBC and BBC World, CNN, SKY and social media platforms surely could be enlisted for the common good. Vaccine champions will have to defeat vaccine deniers on social media if the global vaccination effort is to succeed.
Such a campaign’s likelihood of success will be greatly increased if nations such as the UK can be shown to make vaccine work successfully to control Covid and save lives, not just in the UK. Then all the other pro vaccine supporters could celebrate and publicise the success story.