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Europe's COVID vaccine fiasco continues

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BARCELONA — Just when it appeared as if Europe’s much-criticized COVID vaccination rollout might finally be getting on track, new cases of the virus have skyrocketed, curfews and lockdowns have been reinstated and questions about the safety of some vaccines have led to an atmosphere of restive uncertainty across the continent.

Andrew Hussey, a history professor in Paris — where schools are closed, a 7 p.m. curfew is in effect and new cases of COVID last week were exceeding 40,000 a day — told Yahoo News that the vaccine rollout has been pitiful. A month ago, his doctor contacted the 57-year-old saying that, due to underlying health issues, he’d been fast-tracked for a COVID shot. But when he arrived at the office, the vaccine cupboard was bare. Told to go to a public vaccination center, he waited in line for an hour, finding supplies gone there too. A week later, nothing had changed and he still hasn’t been able to book an appointment. The vaccine rollout in France has been badly managed, he said, and Parisians “are very angry and frustrated.”

Guy Maruani, 75, a retired psychiatrist also living in Paris, received an AstraZeneca shot, but confirmed that scheduling an appointment has proven extremely difficult for many residents. Between vaccine frustrations and the ongoing lockdown restrictions — which include shuttered restaurants, cafes and bars — Maruani said “The French are fed up,” and if the current four-week lockdown doesn’t lift in May as scheduled, he fears “another revolution.”

An elderly women
An elderly woman in Barcelona, Spain, gets her second vaccination shot. (José Colon)

Compounding Europe’s vaccine supply issues is the fact that the AstraZeneca shot — use of which was temporarily suspended last month by a dozen countries out of fears it might be linked to blood clots — is once again in limbo. This week, the chairman of the team evaluating the vaccine for the European Medicines Agency, the regulatory arm that two weeks ago re-approved use in the Europe Union, confirmed a clear association between the vaccine and a rare blood clot disorder that can be deadly. On Wednesday, however, the EMA walked back that news, stressing again that the benefits outweigh the risks. 

After studying reactions of the 23 million people in Europe who received the AstraZeneca vaccine as of mid-March, the agency said 84 had developed blood clots resulting in 18 deaths. Those numbers were enough, however, to convince the British health agency to issue recommendations Wednesday to stop using the vaccine for those under 30 years of age, and for AstraZeneca to put the brakes on clinical studies of the vaccine on children. Countries and regions across Europe are currently in the process of reviewing and changing their age guidelines, with some prohibiting vaccine use for those under age 65.

At the same time, the European Commission, which oversees vaccine purchases for the EU, is dismayed that while AstraZeneca has not delivered its promised shipments to the bloc, some 77 million doses of vaccines manufactured in Europe were being shipped off to other countries, including to Britain, where 48 percent of the population has already received at least one shot of a vaccine. At one point last week, the European Commission threatened to block exports of all AstraZeneca doses until the company made good on its promised deliveries.

Power struggles are breaking out within the EU as well. Unhappy with the amount of vaccine allotted to Austria, that country’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz last week threatened to block the European Commission from buying an additional 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — ultimately dropping that idea and announcing that he was instead negotiating the purchase of a million doses of the Russian vaccine that hasn’t been approved for use in the EU.

A man receives an injection
A man receives a dose of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in London. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also placed a joint call last week to Russian President Vladimir Putin during which they discussed the possibility of purchasing his shot.

But Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which is currently employed in several Eastern European immunization programs despite not yet being green-lit by the European Medicines Agency, is facing its own crisis of confidence. Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic resigned last week following criticism of his clandestine procurement of the vaccine. The Lancet, the highly respected medical journal, reported in February that the Sputnik inoculation has efficacy rates of 91 percent, but Slovakia’s national health agency is currently refusing to authorize Sputnik’s use there, saying that the vaccine delivered this week is not the same vaccine studied by the Lancet.

EU Commissioner of Internal Trade Thierry Breton publicly asserted this week that the European Union is behind schedule simply because AstraZeneca, from which the bloc ordered 90 million doses, had delivered only 30 million, but he also recently announced that an unexpected early delivery of the Pfizer vaccine would get Europe up to speed. Pfizer, however, quickly put an asterisk on that claim, saying that EU bureaucracy, which is requiring that every export be approved by the European Commission, is hampering its deliveries.

Nevertheless, Breton, a former French finance minister and Harvard professor, maintains that the problems behind the continent’s vaccine calamitous rollout are more or less resolved.

“By mid-July,” he tweeted last week, “we will be in capacity to deliver to Member States enough doses to reach collective #immunity (around 70% of the adult population) — provided of course the doses are injected.”

People wait after receiving a vaccine
People wait after receiving a vaccine in Brest, France, on April 6, 2021. (Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s more, as he told Le Parisien, he expects Europe "will become the world's leading vaccine producer by the end of the year, with a volume that could reach 3 billion doses per year, compared to 2 billion for the US."

Like Paris, Milan is again under a stringent lockdown, but vaccine-wise, at least, the situation is more hopeful. Katia Maronati, a PR consultant in Italy’s financial heart, told Yahoo News that she is finally seeing a turnaround there — one that started only three weeks ago, not long after Prime Minister Mario Draghi took over the government. Her parents have both been vaccinated, and, at 53, she’ll be eligible for a shot next month. “It’s a complete change,” she says from how the program was going even a month ago.

With 445 million citizens among its 27 member states, the EU does seem to be on the cusp of turning a corner, albeit not all at the same time. Malta, Serbia, Hungary, Lithuania and Denmark are among the countries who have vaccinated the most citizens, while countries such as Germany and the Netherlands are lagging behind.

“You have the weirdest combination of countries and governments that are in front and those who are in back,” said Roland Freudenstein, policy director of Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, a Brussels-based think tank. “It’s impossible to make any kind of rule — [regarding] if they’re conservative or progressive, big or small. I think it’s what governments did in preparation in 2020 — I think that’s what counts.”

But one thing appears certain: Russia, and to a lesser extent China, appear to be trying to chip away further at the cohesion of the European Union by offering cheap vaccines that aren’t part of the EU’s buying and distribution program. Hungary, whose prime minister Viktor Orbán has been continually slamming Brussels for its slow pace and vaccination missteps, is using both the Russian and Chinese shots in his country, which may cause problems when it comes to this June’s planned issuing of EU-wide vaccine passports, since neither have been approved for use here; the Sputnik V vaccine, however, is currently undergoing EMA evaluation.

People waiting in front of a vaccination center. In North Rhine-Westphalia, people aged 60 and over have been able to get vaccinated against the coronavirus with the active ingredient from Astrazeneca since this weekend. The rush for the vaccination appointments for the age group 60 plus had already led to overloaded lines on the phone and on the Internet in the early morning of Holy Saturday, on March 4, 2021. (Marius Becker/picture alliance via Getty Images)
People waiting in front of a vaccination center. In North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, on March 4, 2021. (Marius Becker/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“This is a propaganda coup for Russia in trying to split the EU — by demonstrating that the EU is not able to take care of its population,” said Jamie Shea, senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe and a former deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges of NATO. He added that given the relatively small production of the Sputnik vaccine and its limited use in Europe, that “the coup is disproportionate to the actual role that it’s really playing.”

Budapest, Hungary-based Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data and Society, is worried about the recent protests against lockdowns that have sprung up across Europe, including those in the normally staid Netherlands, where vaccination sites have been bombed. “It’s quite dangerous,” he said. “The clashes with the U.K. over vaccines and exports are really coming at a very bad time,” he said, referring to Brexit, when Britain left the EU at the start of the year. “Britain is doing very well in terms of vaccines, and there is this theory that if the U.K. was still part of Europe, they wouldn’t be able to do it that well” — which he fears may inspire other countries seeking to leave the European Union.

Giles Merritt, author of “Slippery Slope: Brexit and Europe's Troubled Future” and founder of Friends of Europe, believes the frustrating vaccine rollout “isn’t so much creating new problems for the EU as reinforcing existing ones.”

“There’s a major risk of fragmentation, with the poorer eastern and southern member states becoming increasingly disenchanted with the EU,” Merritt said. “This will be meat and drink for populists.”

Freudenstein, however, foresees that the troubled vaccine rollout may soon pass — that even six weeks from now Europeans “may see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

People clash with anti-riot police
People clash with anti-riot police in Rome during a demonstration organized by restaurant owners, entrepreneurs and small-business owners, April 6, 2021. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

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