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Vaccine Issue

Everyone I speak to is frustrated about the slow roll out of vaccinations in Ireland and the EU is getting a lot of blame.

It’s really worth having a good look at whether this stacks up.

I am going to start with the good parts and then the bad parts and then say what my overall view is.

On the good side, the EU picked some winners last summer when placing bets. Bear in mind there were about 150 vaccine candidates. The EU backed 6 and 3 of these are already on the move.

Also the EU decided to act collectively so that smaller Member-States with less buying power weren’t left behind. This was true solidarity in action and Ireland really benefitted here. We were, and are, guaranteed 1% of any successful vaccines on the EU’s books.

And it’s worth remembering that the EU invested considerable amount of money in medical research before anyone had even heard of Covid 19. For example, in December 2019, the European Investment Bank loaned €100m to BioNTech for the development of their mRNA technology. At that time, it was considered a possible cancer treatment. Adapting it to covid was a great medical breakthrough and the EU backed it all the way.

Finally, don’t forget that anything the EU has done in the health sphere has been approved every step of the way by the Governments of the Member States. For this reason, blame or credit should be applied evenly to Brussels and the national capitals.

On the negative side, the EU placed too much emphasis on price and indemnity. In hindsight, the emphasis should have been on production and supply. In the overall context of the fiscal supports being provided by Governments to tide us over through Covid (trillions), savings on vaccine contracts are vanishingly small (billions).

Where does the blame lie for the penny-pinching when contracts were being negotiated last summer? This remains to be seen but at this point it is fair to say that both Brussels and member state capitals were involved; being penny wise and pound foolish.

The haggling led to delays which are now paying for in delays in roll-out. Israel by contrast paid out big money and had no scruples about sharing bio-medical data with pharmaceutical companies. In effect, Israel volunteered to become the world’s vaccine trial.

Last week in the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the EU’s shortcomings when saying that ‘Science’ had served us well with astonishing research breakthroughs. ‘Industry’ was not so good and now there are real supply issues because of the complicated nature of actually making a vaccine and delivering across the planet at a massive scale.

Another issue in the negative column is the approval process. The UK got a jump on us when they approved vaccines on an emergency basis while the European Medicines Agency took on average 6 weeks longer. The argument that quick approval would have put a lot of people off from getting the vaccine is hard to test. It’s not so much an issue in Ireland or the UK but in some EU states, vaccine skepticism is very high.

Also, and related to an earlier point is that emergency approval puts the UK Government on the hook for anything to might go wrong. Again, we won’t know whether this was wise or not for some time. But it is probably a cheaper option than leaving the economy in lockdown.

Finally, on the negative side, it goes without saying that the Article 16 fiasco will go down as one of the EU’s worst administrative mistakes.

On balance, therefore, the EU gets a pass from me, just. I think that when vaccination picks up speed towards Easter, the EU’s too great emphasis on cost will seem less relevant. As I write the EU’s vaccine roll out is 5th in the world which is very good. For Ireland, it would be bearable if we weren’t behind the UK.

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