ALEXANDER VON SCHOENBURG: EU has vaccine problems too

ALEXANDER VON SCHOENBURG: EU has vaccine problems too

Think Britain has vaccine problems? You should see the mess we’ve made of it here in the EU, writes ALEXANDER VON SCHOENBURG, editor-at-large of Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper Bild

Alexander von Schoenburg, Editor at Large at Bild newspaper in Germany

Britons may understandably be feeling more than a little frustrated with their leaders right now during this new and more vicious phase of the pandemic.

Covid infections are soaring in the UK, there are more patients hospitalised than at the peak of the first wave and, tragically, daily deaths yesterday topped the 1,000 mark.

Then there is fury over your school closures, a developing row over who should get the vaccine — young or old — and problems with supply and distribution.

Yes, you may feel things look grim, but let me tell you that many of us here in Europe are looking across the Channel with envy.

The sclerotic and sluggish EU machine has, unforgivably, botched the roll-out of the vaccines, and the consequences are likely to prove fatal to many thousands of our citizens.

The pandemic is almost a year old and EU leaders could have and should have seen the need for a swift, effective vaccine policy a mile off. 

Instead, delays, in-fighting, national self-interest and sheer bungling bureaucracy have combined to cripple the EU’s vaccine efforts.

Now a growing fury is spreading as we watch independent countries — particularly Britain, Israel and America — ramping up their vaccine distribution with tremendous efficiency in comparison to our efforts, saving lives, protecting the vulnerable and moving towards ending this terrible crisis.

Brian Pinker, one of the first to get the Oxford vaccine who describes himself as Oxford born and bred, said he was ‘so pleased’ to be getting it and was ‘proud’ it was developed in his city

Don’t believe me? Let me take you through the numbers.

More than 1.3 million people in Britain have now received either the Pfizer/BioNTech jab or the more recently approved Oxford/AstraZeneca version.

As of yesterday, France, your closest neighbour, had vaccinated just 7,000 people. During the first week of its vaccination programme, France immunised a pitiful 516 individuals: Britain managed 130,000 in the first seven days and started doing so weeks earlier.

From his bunker in the Elysee Palace, the beleaguered President Macron admits that this paltry figure is ‘not worthy of the French people,’ adding, with Gallic understatement, ‘things aren’t going well’. You can say that again.

But France’s record is in fact just one of a shameful litany across the continent. In Holland, the first Covid-19 vaccines were administered only yesterday — almost a full month after Margaret Keenan, now 91, became the first British patient to receive the jab on the NHS.

In the Polish capital Warsaw, one hospital has attracted widespread criticism for reportedly opting to give the vaccine to celebrities and politicians before vulnerable older citizens, sparking a government investigation there.

88-year-old Trevor Cowlett receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford as the NHS ramps up its vaccination programme

My home country of Germany had, by Tuesday, vaccinated some 317,000 people — by far the most of the EU27.

Yet what a bitter irony it is that we who were crucial to the development and manufacturing of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab — BioNTech is a start-up based outside Frankfurt — must now watch lorry loads of supplies travelling to Britain while our own roll-out is beset by delay, uncertainty and fears about future supply.

Our health minister has warned that Germany will not be vaccinating at Britain’s rate until at least the summer, thanks to distribution problems and the EU’s ill-considered ‘cap’ on the number of doses that can be distributed to the various member states.

So why, despite frequent warnings throughout last year from both the private sector and individual health ministries, and despite the limitless resources at its disposal, have things gone so horribly wrong for the EU?

The seeds were sown as far back as March when the pandemic began to engulf the continent.

I was in northern Italy at the time, reporting for my paper Bild on what was the first region in Europe to be hit hard by coronavirus. I saw for myself the military lorries in Bergamo transporting coffins to mass graves, and I will not soon forget it.

Alarmed at the horror that was unfolding, Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn ordered German manufacturers of PPE and other clinical equipment to stop selling abroad.

Understandably, Italy was shocked by the export ban and a chorus of EU commentators demanded ‘solidarity’.

Scarred by that experience, and ever desperate to portray herself as a pan-European, Chancellor Angela Merkel — who never wastes an opportunity to surrender her own country’s interests to those of the EU — handed over Germany’s vaccination policy to the European Commission.

It’s now all too clear that many Germans will die needlessly because of that decision and the desperately slow roll-out that has followed. 

Boris Johnson watches as Jennifer Dumasi is injected with the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine during a visit to Chase Farm Hospital in north London on Monday morning

The Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, is known for her bossy, power-grabbing tendencies.

These may have served her well in the closing weeks of the Brexit negotiations last month, but they have helped to plunge Europe into its vaccination crisis.

Over the summer, under Mrs von der Leyen and the Commission’s health chief, the Cypriot Stella Kyriakides, the EU made a series of devastating strategic errors. It ordered 300 million doses of a vaccine manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline-Sanofi, a drug that then stumbled in trials.

It spent the summer haggling over the price for the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, ordering sizeable shipments only in November.

Britain, meanwhile, ordered 40 million doses of the same vaccine in July; America put in for 600 million.

Disgracefully, the EU has still not approved the ‘game-changing’ Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine — which is both cheap and can be stored in a standard refrigerator — that Britain began rolling out this week after securing 100 million doses.

(I should acknowledge that yesterday the EU did approve another vaccine, manufactured by Moderna, on which Britain has yet to sign off.)

Though the EU has now signed contracts to buy six different vaccines, its regulators have approved just two.

This terrible stasis will prove fatal — in every sense — for the EU’s population: time is running out for its healthcare systems as new and more infectious variants of the virus take hold.

Amid this chaos, it’s perhaps no surprise that some European lawmakers are desperately trying to shift the blame. 

Disgracefully, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, Petra De Sutter, accused other countries of using sub-standard vaccines.

‘The UK and Israel, as well as Russia and China, are vaccinating people with vaccines that are not of the same standard as the ones we use,’ she said this week.

Yes, the U.S. and the UK gained a head start by invoking emergency powers that mean drug manufacturers are less exposed should problems with a vaccine later surface.

But that is the kind of rapid, vital and timely decision a sovereign country can make in a crisis.

It is impossible to make the same decision when you have 27 countries arguing with one another, all overseen by a remote and unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels.

So what conclusions can we draw? First, nation states are far more effective in a crisis than unwieldy groupings of different countries.

But the most bitter irony for Europe is that the one foreign politician our liberal commentariat have most mocked for years — Boris Johnson — is also the one who acted swiftly and decisively when it came to securing the vaccines. The number of doses you have speaks for itself.

And it was the ‘sensible’ federalist Europeans who have failed so miserably.

Anyone who still doubts the wisdom of Brexit needs only to look at the vaccine chaos unfolding across the Channel — and think again.

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