The first cases of COVID-19 in Europe were confirmed on January 24, 2020, in Haute-Savoie, France. The scientific community had already swung into action as government authorities hurried to establish containment measures. BioNTech, a German company, had initiated “Project Lightspeed,” a project to create a vaccine against the new coronavirus, by mid-January. By March, the company would have signed a deal with Pfizer, an American pharmaceutical company, to test, manufacture, and market their vaccine worldwide. When most vaccines take 5-10 years to create, BioNTech began its first clinical trials in Germany in April 2020, less than three months after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was genetically decoded.
Despite this early and lasting commitment, Europe appears to have lagged behind other world powers in both the vaccination of its own inhabitants and the shipping of doses to the many countries still in need of assistance, more than a year into the pandemic. While missteps in the rollout of vaccines to Europe’s own citizens have caused some consternation, the resulting delay in vaccine exports may have one key advantage: Europe is well-positioned to capitalise on its vaccines’ high quality and avoid the embarrassing real-time adjustments necessitated by its competitors’ mad rush to deliver less reliable products abroad.
China, for example, has staked its claim on the importance of speed. By March 2021, the Chinese government had already committed to distributing more than 500 million doses of locally made vaccinations to countries that remained infected, enough to vaccinate nearly 1 in every 13 persons living outside of China. The EU, on the other hand, had committed only 113.5 million doses for export by mid-April, which could only be done by rerouting vaccines intended for EU people. That number had climbed to approximately 200 million by mid-May, but it was still far behind China. By falling behind, Europe risks losing not just its ability to contribute to global recovery, but also the race to earn global prestige and influence in the process, a tactic known as vaccine diplomacy. For some, having China take the lead in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic is only fair, given that the novel coronavirus epidemic in late 2019 originated in Wuhan, a city in central China. Nonetheless, with each Chinese cargo jet that arrives abroad—and with Russia also delivering its very efficient Sputnik V vaccination throughout the world—the pressure on Europe and the US to get in on the game or risk losing influence to its rivals grows. In February, French President Emanuel Macron stated that being outperformed by China in the battle to spread vaccines around the world was “a little bit humiliating for us.” However, Europe has never been known for its pace.
There is no doubt that Europe has yet to play a role on the world stage in vaccine diplomacy that is commensurate with its resources and reputation as a global leader. The majority of commentators agree that Europe’s problems begin at the systemic level. In summary, they claim that Europe is ill-equipped to deal with crises.
Despite its immense economic and scientific resources, advanced pharmaceutical sector, and shown commitment to addressing public health issues at the governmental level, the European Union’s highly decentralized structure makes rapid, bold action nearly impossible by design. The authoritarian governments of Russia and China, on the other hand, may quickly enact top-down measures with little regard for individual rights and little engagement from stakeholders.
In contrast, despite BioNTech’s tremendous accomplishment, Europe’s lack of coordination caused it to invest too little, too late in overcoming the pandemic. The EU, for example, only revealed their vaccine development programme in June 2020, a month after the US unveiled Operation Warp Speed and six months after the first cases in the West were detected. China and Russia, on the other hand, were already distributing emergency doses to be sent outside as early as September 2020, which was much faster than most academics and regulators had predicted. Similarly, while data on public investment in vaccine development in China is unknown, Europe spent significantly less on vaccine development and manufacture than the US, putting down only $9.01 per adult compared to $70.58 under Operation Warp Speed. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that other European companies like CureVac (Germany) and Sanofi (France) have yet to develop an effective vaccine for regulatory approval, but CureVac’s could be on the way shortly.
Overall, the variables influencing EU vaccine diplomacy reflect Europe’s own characteristics: bureaucratic by nature, collegial by design, and quality above quantity. Despite the fact that these traits have slowed Europe’s vaccine diplomacy, they may prove to be one of its most valuable strengths. Europe appears to believe that, like Aesop’s famous fable, slow and steady will win the race. And it’s possible that’s correct.
Early indications indicate that Europe may yet come out on top in the long run. Despite initial ineptness in procuring vaccine doses, EU governments demonstrated extraordinary solidarity in entrusting the European Commission with purchasing and distributing vaccines fairly across all member countries, an experience that will benefit Europe in the future. Even the contentious decision in March to halt the AstraZeneca vaccine’s distribution while potential side effects were researched demonstrated Europe’s dedication to experience above expediency. Perhaps most crucially, Europe is well on its way to a successful vaccination campaign of its own, with nearly a third of Europeans have received at least one dosage, thanks to its huge coffers and active purchasing of doses, largely from the United States. This means that European countries with excess vaccination doses, as well as the EU as a whole, can finally join the vaccine diplomacy race, albeit late.
Finally, Europe’s aversion to risk and desire for quality is beginning to pay off. Despite early successes, China’s vaccinations have subsequently suffered embarrassment as a result of inadequate performance or a lack of transparency in the clearance process. Singapore highlighted this issue by allowing an entire cargo of Chinese-made vaccinations to sit in a warehouse while Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna put out the more effective mRNA-based versions. However, given the majority of the vaccines available for export in Europe are extremely effective, Europe is poised to become a significant participant in vaccine diplomacy at long last. Europe may yet win the race if production continues and receiving countries choose for a safer risk.