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Is the EU Doing Enough to Fight Coronavirus Globally?

Globally, EU assistance has been slow to materialize. Supporting countries in dire need of coronavirus vaccines—through both the provision of vaccines and the sharing of patents—would project the union’s soft power capacity

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2021

"As coronavirus vaccination programs roll out and ramp up across Europe, national lockdowns are easing and there are signs that life across the continent is slowly returning to a form of pre-pandemic normality."
"As coronavirus vaccination programs roll out and ramp up across Europe, national lockdowns are easing and there are signs that life across the continent is slowly returning to a form of pre-pandemic normality."

by Judy Dempsey*

Allison Carragher/ Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe

No, but not for lack of trying. Consider EU vaccination efforts to date.

Europe has invested billions to support vaccine development. The EU largely permitted exports of locally-manufactured vaccines, while the U.S. and UK blocked them. The European Commission was a founding member of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility, to which Team Europe is a top contributor. Closer to home, the EU gave €70 million ($85 million) to the six Western Balkan EU aspirants so that they could purchase vaccines.

But EU assistance has been slow to materialize. On March 28, three months after the EU rollout launched, COVAX deliveries finally came through and Kosovo became the last country in Europe to start vaccinating. EU-procured vaccines aren’t expected there until May.

The EU’s main miscalculation was believing that funding equals vaccines. It’s not such a simple equation. The union learned this lesson the hard way, when AstraZeneca failed to deliver on contracts despite the EU’s investment and ability to pay. AstraZeneca cited manufacturing issues, which have also plagued other producers.

Patent protections and the specter of a big-pharma monopoly is another red herring.

There’s no quick fix or easy buy. To do more, the EU should shift its focus to scaling up manufacturing capacity, sharing know-how, and streamlining supply chains.

Luke Cooper/ Consultant and associate researcher at LSE IDEAS, the foreign policy think tank of the London School of Economics

The unevenness in vaccine access globally illustrates a democratic conundrum. On the one hand, states have to respond to the demands of their populations for mass vaccination. On the other, procurement capacity is unequal, and a handful of companies have monopolized manufacturing supply, limiting the scale of production.

Human security offers a way to overcome these contradictions. It recognizes that the national security of states and the demand for protection from the crisis requires an international response. Specifically, new vaccine-resistant variants may emerge unless vaccines are rapidly distributed across the world.

Indeed, there is simply no practical exit route from the pandemic in isolation. The EU backed a human security agenda in its 2016 Global Strategy. The emerging consensus around the need for an interventionist economic policy—typified by the recent Dutch-Spanish paper—needs to be firmly connected to this approach or risk a swift degeneration into a “first wordlist” Euro-nationalism.

Time is of the essence. The EU should back the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool and its agenda without further equivocation: suspend vaccine patents, share the technology, and develop a global manufacturing strategy based on partnerships between the public and private sectors for the common good.

Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel/ Associate Professor of International Relations at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas (FGV), Sao Paulo

Seen from Latin America, neither the United States nor the EU have been able to counter Beijing’s highly effective vaccine diplomacy drive, assuring that China is regarded as the most proactive player combating the pandemic.

Skepticism with regard to Chinese vaccines is common and most Latin Americans would prefer to receive a Western alternative, but while the region has received some Western aid and vaccines, including Pfizer doses in Chile and AstraZeneca doses via the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility in several countries, Beijing’s rollout has been unmatched.

Around 85 percent of all coronavirus shots administered in Brazil so far are CoronaVac vaccines, developed by Beijing-based company Sinovac. Elsewhere in the region, the Sinopharm vaccine has been the most commonly distributed.

The dominant perception remains that both the United States and Europe are busy focusing on their internal challenges, while China helped when many of its own citizens have not yet been vaccinated.

In Brazil, in particular the United States’ and the EU’s promise to quickly aid India—including Biden’s decision to lift a U.S. ban on exporting raw materials to produce vaccines—but failure to do the same in response to the collapse of public health systems in Latin America consolidates the perception that the region is being left behind.

Chipo Dendere/ Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, USA

It is nearly impossible to imagine that the world could return to normal if countries in the global South do not get equal access to coronavirus vaccinations. More than five months ago, India and South Africa proposed a temporary waiver on coronavirus patents to increase production of the vaccine outside western countries.

However, while the EU continues say that they are committed to helping developing countries, a small but influential group of European nations, plus the United Kingdom and Switzerland, continue to favor restricting access to patents. This decision is good for big European pharmaceutical companies, but it is terrible for global health.

Wealthy nations have a moral responsibility to do more to help poorer countries. While some of the financial help that has been given to African countries is welcome, it is not enough if countries cannot secure vaccinations. There are a billion people in India that are yet to be vaccinated. If just 1 percent of that population is forced to travel abroad in search of medical treatment, the global community will face another outbreak, and this time we might not be able to contain it.

Mamane Bello Garba Hima/ Researcher at the Laboratory of Studies and Research on Economic Emergence (LAEREE) at the University of Abdou Moumouni, Niger

The EU’s international role in helping to fight coronavirus is not enough, particularly with regard to the South. It is true that the coronavirus pandemic has created fear and led to disorganized responses in EU member states and elsewhere, but the focus on helping weak states should not be absent and this should not be left to other new powers.

One could reasonably think that the EU pharmaceutical companies have too much power and have no results-based agreement with the EU or they are driven by a formula “huge profit first.”

Rethinking the conditions of funding pharmaceutical companies and reducing the bureaucratic procedures could be helpful in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. After all, being a leader is a process of self-assessment and listening to how others assess you.

Shada Islam/ Independent EU Commentator and Managing Director of New Horizons Project, Brussels

The EU is struggling hard to maintain its reputation as a generous global actor that is responsive to the needs of its partners—when they are really in desperate need. Yes, the EU and the United States are finally sending much-needed oxygen, medicines, and vaccines to India. In ordinary times one could say “better late than never.” But this time, that delay has cost thousands of lives. So, neither the EU nor the United States have lived up to their much-hyped special relationship with India. The failure to do so will be remembered by Indians and many others.

There is also the very important question of responding quickly to repeated demands from India and South Africa—now joined by about 80 other countries as well as NGOs—to back a temporary patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines that would allow countries to manufacture treatments locally and accelerate the global vaccination effort.

Big Pharma arguments that sharing technology with other nations will help Russia and China are morally wrong. It is clear that vaccine production has to be ramped up to make sure that we overcome the virus. This is only possible through a sharing of patents and a transfer of technology. We are in a global emergency that requires a collaborative international effort. Playing geopolitical competition in these challenging times is unacceptable.

Jacob Kirkegaard/ Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics

EU-based firms have developed two of the soon three—BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, and CureVac—approved mRNA vaccines, plus the Johnson & Johnson/Jannsen adenovirus vaccine, and have been exporting a rapidly increasing number of vaccine doses.

On April 23, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the EU had exported 155 million doses to eighty-seven different countries since December 2020. In the same period, the EU-27, plus Norway and Iceland, received around 180 million doses.

This contrasts with U.S. vaccine exports of zero and majority net imports of vaccines by the UK, despite both countries having considerably higher domestic vaccination rates. The EU alone among developed nations has carried its weight in the global fight against coronavirus.

The EU’s vaccination program has directly felt the adverse impact of the complexity of rapid mass production of coronavirus vaccines. This issue, in addition to the mutating nature of the coronavirus almost certainly requiring future booster shots of adjusted vaccines, means that proposals to “give away vaccine patents” to help poorer countries will fail. Developing countries will not be able to set up material new production capacity for coronavirus vaccines of especially mRNA, but also other European-developed vaccines in the next twenty-four months.

If the EU wants to accelerate the global coronavirus vaccination drive in the short term, it must instead be through donated vaccines produced at existing production facilities.

Bidzina Lebanidze/ Senior Analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics, Tbilisi

While it’s understandable that EU member states prioritize the vaccination of their own citizens, recent virus mutations and the surge in infection numbers in India and elsewhere show that the coronavirus is a global problem that requires a coordinated response.

For this to happen and for the vaccination process to accelerate globally, the EU needs to force the big pharma companies to find creative solutions to the current supply shortages, possibly including a compulsory licensing and a temporary waiver of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which would fall short of lifting patents on vaccines.

The global vaccination process is also developing into a geopolitical campaign waged by China and Russia to increase their influence globally. To counteract this trend, the EU needs to leave its own footprint in the global vaccination race. Therefore, while the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility initially proved as a useful instrument, the EU also needs to develop its own, more potent European platform which can distribute vaccines globally under the EU flag.

Ending a deadly pandemic globally will not only save the European economy from collapse, but also provide a once in a generation opportunity for the EU to establish itself as one of the world’s leading (soft) powers.

Denis MacShane/ Author and UK’s former Minister for Europe

Like on defense and foreign policy, the EU’s ability to project itself as a world player on combatting the pandemic is stronger on verbal ambition than delivery realities.

Unlike the United States, which by June 2020 was using its Defense Production Act and its Biomedical Advanced Research and Developmental Authority (BARDA) agency to fund research, open new production facilities, and order hundreds of millions of doses, the EU was stuttering as member state governments went their own way.

Health is not an EU competence. It is difficult to create a common EU policy with leaders all handling the pandemic in different ways.

How can the EU help India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro when both leaders permit super-spreading events that kill their people?

The EU has been generous in giving money to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility, but more pressure needs to be exercised to remove patent protection from coronavirus drugs.

What might help is a coronavirus Vaccine Investment and Trade Agreement (CVITA). But are the EU’s 27 governments, each handling the pandemic in its own way, ready to sink differences and allow the EU to create a Single Pandemic Policy and Authority?

Mary C. Murphy/ Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration and Lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at the University College Cork

As coronavirus vaccination programs roll out and ramp up across Europe, national lockdowns are easing and there are signs that life across the continent is slowly returning to a form of pre-pandemic normality.

The EU’s management of the vaccination program, however, has not cast the union in a positive light. In Ireland, where support for the EU is consistently high—84 percent—just 45 percent have confidence in the EU’s vaccines strategy according to the 2021 European Movement Ireland/RedC poll.

It is clear that the EU’s limited capacity to respond quickly, effectively, and efficiently to the early stages of the pandemic has done little to reassure its own citizens. However, as vaccines become increasingly available, there is an opportunity for the EU not just to address and correct earlier domestic failings, but also to project and assert an influential global role.

Assisting countries in dire need of vaccines—through both the provision of vaccines and the sharing of patents—would project the EU’s soft power capacity. It would be a demonstrable act of solidarity with those countries experiencing the worst horrors of the pandemic. It also has the potential to rehabilitate Europeans’ views of how the EU—in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis—can ultimately be a force for global good.

Raul Stolk/ Managing Director of Caracas Chronicles

The Caracas Chronicles’ wider research on the perception that Venezuelans have on the European Union showed that although some humanitarian projects are recognized by well-informed groups, the general population has little awareness of the EU as a global influence that may impact their lives.

There’s little visibility on what the EU is doing globally to fight the pandemic, and locally, most of the EU’s efforts have been focused on broader aspects of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis.

As Feliciano Reyna, a recognized human rights activist, explains: “The EU hasn’t accomplished a common practice to provide the needed help. I’m not aware of changes in this matter during the pandemic. Funding has been mobilized for the humanitarian emergency, not for the coronavirus pandemic.”

Among the experts Caracas Chronicles consulted, there’s a consensus that the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was delayed and that there was a lack of coordination evidenced by the diverse outcomes in EU member states.

Khalil Shikaki/ Professor of Political Science and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Palestine

In managing the international system, major powers play a significant role. They write the rules by which the rest of world lives. But these rules are challenged when they are seen as unfair.

The current pandemic has destroyed livelihoods and lives of millions. As the world finally finds a way to combat the current pandemic, the major powers find themselves incapable of effectively dealing with such an unprecedented challenge.

The most vital interest of the rich and strong dictates that they do what they can to save their own population; that others, in this case, the poor and weak, suffer what they must. The EU should not allow this unethical rule to dominate the international system in the midst of a horrible pandemic.

As the emergency unfolds, it is time for the EU to take the lead in loosening the patent regime so that millions of human beings in developing countries can be saved and their economies restored.

Sharing what they have with others can create good will and reduce the impulse to challenge the rules set by the strong. All benefit when the global market resumes normalcy.

Rafael Vilasanjuan/ Director of Policy & Global Development at ISGlobal Barcelona Institute for Global Health

Vaccines are the front-line strategy to stop the pandemic. The initial decision by the EU was to assure equity within the European space, so that citizens in Budapest and Berlin would receive the vaccine within the same time frame. The aim was to assure that transit, trade, and tourism would be kept open, as a common space.

When the first billion doses will have been delivered worldwide, more than 90 percent will have covered just 10 percent of the population. Meanwhile, only 50 million doses delivered by the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility by the end of April reached the lowest economies of the world.

Vaccines are lacking. The EU should urgently address three main issues. First, use existing flexibilities in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to increase production and transfer knowledge. Second, fund COVAX to provide subsidized vaccines. And third, share part of the doses bought, without waiting for the entire EU population to be vaccinated.

If not, threats may undermine the EU’s achievements, as member states will be required to keep the borders closed with countries where citizens are not being vaccinated. And even more dangerously, these countries might see the emergence of variants of the virus, against which the existing vaccines will not be effective.

*nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe
**first published in: carnegieeurope.eu

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