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Why isn’t Europe joining the US and UK rush to vaccinate for COVID-19?

Margaret Keenan, 90, is applauded by staff as she returns to her ward after becoming the first patient in the UK to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, at University Hospital, Coventry, England, on Dec. 8, 2020. The United Kingdom, one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, is beginning its vaccination campaign, a key step toward eventually ending the pandemic. AP Photo by Jacob King via Pool

Nations around the world are hurrying efforts to vaccinate for COVID-19. The United States announced Friday that it will be granting an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, three days after the United Kingdom became the first Western nation to begin vaccinations.

The European Union, by comparison, has declined to expedite its vaccination plans. The European Medicines Agency, which is responsible for the scientific evaluation, supervision, and monitoring of medicines in the EU, is continuing to study the new vaccine with plans to authorize its distribution in Europe in the final days of December.

Mai’a Cross is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Though it is losing the race to be first to provide vaccinations, the EU may be implementing the best overall strategy—medically and economically—for the COVID-19 pandemic, says Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern.

The EU will face enormous challenges distributing the vaccine throughout its bloc of 27 independent countries, which represent a wide variety of cultures and perspectives. Recent surveys have shown that large numbers of Europeans are skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines—although they’re not as polarized as Americans, of whom only half say they are looking forward to receiving the vaccine (while one-fourth say they don’t want it at all).

But Europe may be a global leader in terms of preparedness. The EU has purchased 300 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine—enough to treat 150 million people.

In contrast, the U.S. has secured 100 million doses. Its reluctance to purchase additional vaccines, according to The Washington Post, may limit attempts to treat more people in late spring or early summer. (The Trump administration has denied the report.)

“The EU has actually planned more than we have in the United States,” Cross says. “There’s been a lot of groundwork laid into the planning of distribution. In general, the European Commission [the most powerful branch of the EU government] hasn’t released a lot of the specifics of how it will distribute the vaccine, but it’s been very clear about distributing it to all member states at the same time.”

Britain’s move to the front of the vaccination line has been controversial. The U.K. has yet to negotiate its departure from the EU—a result of the 2016 Brexit referendum—and therefore shouldn’t be distributing the vaccine at this time, says Cross.

“Technically, the U.K. is still in the EU and is supposed to follow EU regulations until the end of the year,” Cross says. “It should have waited for the European Medicines Agency to approve it, but it jumped the gun.”

European public health officials have joined with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, in questioning the speed of the U.K.’s approval. Fauci initially said that Britain had “rushed” its approval before he later withdrew the criticism and expressed support of the British regulators.

The EU may learn valuable lessons from witnessing the results of the British and U.S. rollouts. On its initial day of testing, Britain was forced to alter its vaccination protocols after two people developed (and eventually recovered from) allergic reactions to the vaccine. Any person with a history of anaphylaxis—an overreaction of the body’s immune system that can sometimes be life-threatening—will not receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the UK health agency announced.

In addition to planning for vaccinations, Cross notes that the EU’s 27 member states have offered a variety of financial protections to businesses and workers during the pandemic—with more help on the way via an upcoming six-year budget that includes $2.2 trillion that the EU says will “help rebuild a post-COVID-19 Europe” that will be “greener, more digital and more resilient.”

“In the midst of this pandemic, Europeans have been provided with income support, unemployment support, universal health coverage, and various kinds of protections, including labor protections to workers rights—all designed for crises like this current pandemic,” Cross says. “There’s been a long tradition of an emphasis on social welfare in Europe. The United States used to be more closely aligned with that, but over time has drifted off into a different direction. So now there really appears to be a big gap between what Europeans do to protect the safety of citizens and what the United States does.”

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