The ride of vaccine hope brought forth by the start of multiple large-scale campaigns across the world has hit a few expected bumps along the road. Multiple news reports show that many vaccination campaigns globally are being brought to a screeching halt due to a severe shortage of vaccines. The big fight ongoing at the moment is between the EU and the UK over the delivery of two million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Briefly, the situation started when AstraZeneca reported that it would only be able to supply 25 per cent of the doses that were scheduled for delivery to the EU for the first quarter of the year. At the same time as this warning, the company made its assurances to the UK Government — which made its contract separately from the EU — that it would fulfil the timely delivery of two million vaccines to the UK by next week. These vaccines were earmarked for delivery to the UK on priority because AstraZeneca claims its contractually obligated to supply the UK first on the 'first come-first serve' logic as the UK had placed its order three months before the EU did.
It is necessary to note that the EU vaccine rollout has generally been much slower than expected. Recent figures have revealed that the EU is far behind its expected pace to deliver on its promise of vaccinating 70 per cent of its population by summer. Analysts have noted that the EU's method of using a commission to negotiate vaccine prices may have gotten it lower prices for its impressive portfolio of 2.3 billion doses across several vaccine makers, but it lost to the UK who paid the full price while negotiating directly. The company has maintained that the three-month delay means that European production sites are not in order right now to deliver on the expected supply for the EU while the UK had three months to smoothen out supply hiccups on its side. Unfortunately, neither the EU or the UK seems interested in playing nice over the issue. The EU has outrightly rejected the 'first come-first serve' approach with countries like Italy going so far as to suggest court action against AstraZeneca. Voices of 'reason' like Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen have used more strict combative language in stating that the EU "means business" and that the EU must have its fair share. There has now been news that the EU will now require domestic vaccine producers to notify it of exports while the German Government has gone so far as to float the idea of a complete export ban of vaccines made in the EU for the moment.
Boris Johnson, similarly, has also complicated matters by seemingly gloating over its wisdom to follow its own vaccine plan rather than stay in the EU vaccine programme.
The latest in a series of escalations is news of Belgian regulators launching an investigation into the AstraZeneca production site near Brussels to discern whether vaccines made in the EU have been diverted to the UK.
There is a perception that this series of tense combative comments made post-Brexit may threaten to spark an untimely and unusual 'trade war' where some raised the prospect that the EU could block exports of Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccines from EU plants to the UK in retaliation for the current supply holdup.
While this is, of course, highly unlikely in any reasonable scenario, the escalating row does raise several questions over the current scenario of vaccine production and delivery. It is worth noting that both the EU and the UK have, in theory, secured vaccine contracts for the entirety of their population with quite a bit to spare. While problems may have popped up in the supply of these vaccine doses, it is important to remember that there are many countries that have failed to secure any significant vaccine deals and are instead relying on goodwill and global vaccine programmes like the COVAX initiative. The IMF recently warned that inequitable access to vaccines amongst nations threatened the risk of asynchronous recovery from the pandemic. Countries that lag behind in their vaccination efforts could lose market access and see as sharpening of financial and social inequities.
It is important, thus, to ask whether there is something wrong in the current method of vaccine distribution and production that has not only seen inequitable access but huge delays. It must be recalled that both the EU and the UK were at the forefront of arguments against India's proposal to lift vaccine patents so that the vaccines could be mass-produced on a much larger scale across the world. Whatever concerns the detractors of India's position may have had, the current vaccine supply chaos speaks volumes about the folly of expecting traditional methods to work in such an unprecedented crisis.