Vaccines: Europe is ‘so far behind UK’ says professor
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The EU has had a bumpy COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The campaign prompted complaints that regulators were too slow to approve the shots and led to a simmering tussle with AstraZeneca as the pharmaceutical giant repeatedly slashed its delivery commitments. More recently, several countries briefly halted their use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine amid safety concerns, a move that baffled health experts and raised questions about future uptake.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) expressed concern earlier this month that the region’s ongoing coronavirus crisis appeared “more worrying” than it has for several months.
The health agency also described Europe’s vaccination campaign as “unacceptably slow” and said it was crucial to speed up the rollout because new infections are currently increasing in every age group – apart from those aged 80 years or older.
In the last two weeks, the bloc has stepped up its campaign but a lot still needs to be done.
As polls around the continent suggest citizens have started blaming their national governments, an unearthed report suggests what has been the start of the “vaccine disaster”.
Last year, European governments shifted responsibility for vaccination procurement to the EU.
This is because German Chancellor Angela Merkel reasoned that it would have strained EU cohesion if Germany had procured privileged supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was funded by Berlin.
However, according to author and journalist Jillian Deutsch there might have been another reason.
She wrote in January: “Germany helped force the Commission’s hand in June by teaming up with France, Italy and the Netherlands to sign a deal for up to 400 million Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines for all of the EU so the US couldn’t snatch them all up.
“Other countries, notably Belgium, were critical of the initiative and the Commission stepped in to negotiate for the bloc.
“The four countries eventually transferred the Oxford/AstraZeneca deal to the Commission.”
She added: “This is now being reported in German media as the start of the ‘vaccine disaster’.
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Bild reported that Spahn [Germany’s Health Minister] apologized for the four-country alliance’s stance in a ‘humiliating tone’, so Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel could make the ‘grand gesture’ of letting the EU take charge.”
According to the Head of Oxford-based think-tank Euro Intelligence Wolfgang Munchau, the bloc would never have been able to deliver a successful vaccination rollout on par with the one of the UK and Israel.
He explained in a recent report: “The EU could not have done what Israel and the UK did.
“Israel handed all health data to the manufacturers.
“That’s not possible in the data-protection-obsessed EU.
“The UK put a venture capitalist in charge of the operation.
He added: “Inexperience plays a role. But the biggest problem in the procurement delays is the constant need in the EU to coordinate between all members.
“Policy coordination works in situations that are purely symmetric – of which there are not many.
“Vaccination is surely not in that category.”
With a population of just nine million, Israel is not a large country but its contributions to health innovation, in particular digital health, are outsized.
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In 2019, Israel’s cabinet approved a one billion shekel (£276million) investment in digital health, focusing primarily on commercialising and otherwise deriving value from the country’s medical databases.
Israel’s healthcare system has been paperless for about 20 years.
And while its hospitals are not all on the same Electronic Health Records (EHR) system, those systems do all talk to each other.
The ability to reach patients at the drop of a hat, have immediate access to their medical history, and seamless capabilities for appointment bookings have been fundamental for Israel, which is one of the countries at the top of the COVID-19 vaccine league table.
Britain’s successful vaccination rollout is another story.
As Mr Munchau mentioned, the UK did put a venture capitalist, Kate Bingham, in charge of the operation.
Her taskforce helped the Government to secure vital agreements to have access to six different vaccines across four different formats, amounting to 357 million doses.
She invested a huge £1billion upfront, without any guarantee that any vaccine would work.
It was a risk that has paid off handsomely, and has allowed the UK to race ahead and vaccinate its population against the virus.
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