Quarterly Concerns

Jun 30, 2021

Learning the Tough Lessons of Vaccine Geopolitics

Within a few weeks the EU will have vaccinated the same share of its population as the United States and the United Kingdom. But Brussels will not forget the vaccine-hoarding behavior of the EU’s Western allies.

An illustration showing a "vaccine race" between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union
All rights reserved

Following the much-anticipated EU-US summit in Brussels on June 15, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appeared before reporters and announced with visible relief that she and President Joe Biden had agreed to set up a Joint EU-US COVID Manufacturing and Supply Chain Taskforce. It might not yet be the global pandemic treaty the EU is aiming for, but it provided some hope to remedy the disastrous non-cooperation seen from Washington on COVID-19 vaccines over the past year.

"This is a joint priority, this is a joint responsibility ... and you know all the issues we had in the past six months,” von der Leyen said pointedly. While the European Union acted as the “pharmacy of the world,” exporting half of all COVID-19 vaccine doses produced at facilities in the bloc, the United States exported nothing. That was because of an executive order and invocation of the Defense Production Act invoked by President Donald Trump on his way out the door in December 2020, a policy continued by Biden for more than four months. Washington only recently started allowing companies to export vaccines produced on US soil.

“Britain First”

The United Kingdom had a similar export ban on vaccines, though theirs was designed by contract rather than by law. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock bragged about the “Britain First” concept the government had imposed on Oxford University, which developed the vaccine later taken on by UK-headquartered pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

According to Sky News, Oxford originally intended to partner with the American pharmaceutical firm Merck, but Hancock was wary of the university partnering with an American firm because the doses might get caught up in a US export ban. And so, he effectively forced Oxford to partner with AstraZeneca, a firm which had little experience in vaccines, simply because it was UK-based, according to Sky News. Later, when AstraZeneca signed a deal with the EU envisioning the usage of its two UK plants to deliver that order, the company found itself unable to fulfil its EU contract because of its Britain First UK contract. As Sky put it: “The fear was export controls—not from the EU, but from the US. Mr. Hancock was worried that President Trump would stop vaccines from Merck leaving the country.” Hancock “wanted to make sure there was enough for UK citizens. The rest of the world could come later.”

At those key moments of the pandemic in 2020, London and Washington were gearing up for what they knew would be a nasty war for vaccine access. The EU, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to what was coming. Given that both the US and UK were suffering catastrophic second waves at the time the vaccines became available at the end of 2020, one could argue that these heavy-handed statist approaches, blocking private companies from setting up supply chains as they saw fit, were warranted. But the EU seemed caught off guard by the vaccine-hoarding in the US and UK, and had not set up any similar export bans. That came back to bite them when the EU belatedly tried to do so in 2021.

Slow Start

There are three pharmaceutical powerhouses in the world: the US, the EU, and India. America’s export ban left the latter two, which did not have export bans, on the hook for supplying doses to the whole world—even countries that logically should have been supplied by the US supply chain like Canada, Mexico, and Japan. Despite the main Pfizer production facility being located in Kalamazoo, Michigan just a few hundred kilometers from the Canadian border, until recently Canada had to get its Pfizer supply from the company’s facility in Puurs, Belgium.

“I have been in charge for months to make sure we’ve been able to produce on our continent vaccines to vaccinate all our citizens but also all our allies, NATO allies and even more,“ Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, recalled in June. „Today the rest of the world is depending on us and not on our American friends.”

And while the US was supplying vaccines only to its own citizens and exporting none, China and Russia were exporting millions of doses while not vaccinating their own citizens, engaging in highly publicized “vaccine diplomacy.” Russia, which by late June has still only vaccinated 15 percent of its citizens, started flooding countries like Serbia and Hungary with Sputnik V vaccines. China did the same in Chile with Sinopharm. Now the efficacy of both these vaccines is in doubt, particularly in Chile where a rapid initial mobilization of Sinopharm did not prevent a brutal second wave. China has only recently started to ramp up its domestic vaccination campaign and now reports being at 30 percent.

Because of a more cautious approval approach, difficulties getting deliveries from AstraZeneca, and national systems being caught unprepared by an earlier vaccine availability than expected, vaccine rollouts in the EU were not as fast as in some other countries. Early in 2021, Europeans were relatively calm about the slow start. But a steady drumbeat of overdramatic media coverage of the situation in the US and UK soon changed that. British pundits and politicians, eager to identify a Brexit benefit at a time when everything else was going so wrong, cited the UK’s exit from the EU’s vaccine joint procurement and the European Medicines Agency as the reason why they were surging ahead with vaccinations while the EU was struggling to get vaccines delivered. And since the US media often takes its narrative cues about the EU from UK media, the Brexit-influenced coverage bled across the Atlantic.

In reality, the UK’s success had nothing to do with Brexit. It would have been just as free as any EU member state not to participate in joint procurement, and to emergency-authorize vaccines ahead of EMA approval. The UK was in fact subject to all EU laws when these decisions were taken in 2020, since they left the EU single market on January 1, 2021. But they were still free to authorize earlier and negotiate their own contract (as any EU country would have been), through which they would have been able to guarantee a Britain First supply chain.

That was exactly the scenario the EU was trying to avoid by pooling together for negotiating vaccine orders, making sure that the big European countries didn’t hog all the vaccines leaving small countries with the scraps. Brussels recognized early on the “me first” temptation that comes with a pandemic, having witnessed an ugly scramble for medical equipment within the EU in the very first weeks of the crisis. So, the European Commission built a system that sought to neutralize the geopolitics and self-interest within the EU. Germany and France signed up to that scheme, as did every other EU member state, knowing that it might mean a slower rollout for the big guys at first compared to what they could have negotiated on their own, but would prevent a vaccine access war within the EU. And within the EU, it all worked out—for the most part everyone stuck to the plan and waited their turn. But where Brussels was perhaps naïve was when it came to how the geopolitics would play out with their English-speaking allies.

A “Vaccine Disaster”?

The export bans affected Europe in different ways. The EU was never going to source vaccines from facilities in the US, but the American export ban meant that it had to supply US neighbors. With one out of every two doses produced in the EU leaving the union, that left fewer vaccines for EU citizens.  The UK is not a pharmaceutical powerhouse and its export ban has not had a major effect on the world. But the ban made a crucial difference in the delivery of AstraZeneca vaccines to the EU in the early months when AstraZeneca was supposed to form the backbone of the EU’s vaccination strategy. Unable to make deliveries from its UK plants—half of the envisioned supply chain for the EU—the company was unable to meet the delivery schedule it had promised. That became the subject of a lawsuit between the EU and the company, and has resulted in the EU steering away from AstraZeneca and toward the mRNA vaccines.

By late January, the Brexit-tinged coverage of the EU’s slower vaccine rollout from the English-language media, which tends to influence national media throughout Europe, was having an effect. That coverage was following the UK government’s line that Brexit had yielded a vaccine success and the EU was having a “vaccine disaster.” In reality, there was no disaster and it had nothing to do with Brexit. The EU only looked slow compared to a handful of countries that had made special arrangements to get lots of doses early. Israel made a special deal to essentially make the country one big clinical trial. The US had an export ban, and the UK had priority access to AstraZeneca. But the EU was still vaccinating faster than all countries in the world except these few, even in the early months of 2021.

Such nuance was lost in the media coverage, however. Facing a European public frustrated with the slow pace of vaccination (though not nearly as frustrated as portrayed in the English-language press), the commission flailed in its response. It tried to institute an export ban system that would enable it to block specific shipments, but the horse was already out of the barn. Suddenly, the global narrative from the powerful English-language media was that it was the EU that was being protectionist and blocking exports of vaccine, even though the precise opposite was true. The EU was exporting hundreds of millions of doses, and only ever blocked one shipment from Italy to Australia of a few hundred thousand. It was the UK and US that had full export bans.

Lessons Learned

The EU’s vaccination pace has accelerated immensely in the past few months, with over half the population now having received a dose. As predicted, when the deliveries started coming in large numbers, the rollout ramped up. In the end the EU vaccinated at the same timeline that had always been envisaged—but the surge of initial vaccinations in the US and the UK made people see it as too slow in comparison. Now, because of a major slowdown in the US due to vaccine skepticism, the EU should overtake the US in vaccination share by early July.

The “EU vaccination disaster that wasn’t” has subsided. But after a bruising few months, there are plenty of geopolitical lessons to be learned. For policymakers in Brussels, they learned a tough one about the true nature of the transatlantic alliance: when it comes to the rules of free market and fair play, the US and UK have one set of rules for the world, and another for themselves. The EU designed a system which anticipated that everyone would stay united and play fair. And for the most part EU countries did, barring Hungary which approved Russia’s Sputnik vaccine on its own. But in 2020 Brussels underestimated the upcoming geopolitics of vaccines, and failed to protect EU citizens against a global system in which the US and UK gobbled up vaccines at their expense. 

And while the UK, the EU, and the US have squabbled over vaccine access, the rest of the world has had to wait for its vaccine access. The effectiveness of COVAX, the international system which was supposed to see doses donated from rich to poor countries, has collapsed in the first months as rich countries worried about their own vaccine access. Faced with a barrage of media reports about a supposed disaster, EU politicians have been in no position to make further commitments to vaccine donations. At the G7 summit in June, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially pledged one billion doses to the world’s poorer countries, saying, without a sense of irony, that the UK and the others “reject nationalist approaches.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel later spoke of 2.3 billion doses by the end of 2022, while the World Health Organization pointed out that at least eight billion doses would be needed.

Von der Leyen may have been all smiles at her subsequent meeting with Biden. But behind the smiles, trust in the new Biden administration has been damaged by the vaccines experience. The panic has subsided, and it looks like the US is returning to good behavior by allowing exports and donating vaccines to COVAX, the global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. But in Brussels, few will forget how the US and UK behaved in a moment of crisis.

Dave Keating is an American journalist based in Brussels covering European politics for France24.

Read more by the author