Covid-19 vaccinations are rising in the EU after a long, slow start

On average over the past week, nearly 3 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine were being administered each day in the EU. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (NYTIMES) - Vaccinations are picking up pace in the European Union, a stunning turnaround after the bloc's immunisation drive stalled for months.

On average over the past week, nearly 3 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine were being administered each day in the EU, a group of 27 nations, according to Our World in Data, a University of Oxford database.

Adjusted for population, the rate is roughly equivalent to the number of shots given daily in the United States, where demand has been falling.

The EU vaccination campaign, marred by disruptions in supplies of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccines, pivoted last month to rely heavily on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Last month, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said Pfizer had agreed to an early shipment of doses that she said should probably allow the bloc to reach its goal of inoculating 70 per cent of adults by summer's end.

The EU is also on the verge of announcing a deal with Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech for 2022 and 2023 that will lock in 1.8 billion doses for boosters, variants and children's vaccines.

The United States moved aggressively under the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed to procure millions of doses by funding and prodding vaccine production. But the EU, rather than partnering with drugmakers as the United States did, acted more like a customer than an investor.

"I think it is overdue that the EU has stepped up their vaccination campaign," said Dr Beate Kampmann, director of the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "I think in the context of the rate of deaths we've seen and new cases we've seen in the EU, it is absolutely vital that we get the vaccine to people there very, very quickly."

The EU's increase underscores the global disparities in vaccination efforts.

About 83 per cent of Covid shots have been given in high- and upper-middle-income countries, while only 0.3 per cent of doses have been given in low-income countries.

In North America, more than 30 per cent of people have received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data. In Europe, the figure is nearly 24 per cent. In Africa, it's slightly more than 1 per cent.

Experts warn that if the virus can run rampant in much of the world - untamed by vaccines - dangerous variants will continue to evolve and spread, threatening all countries.

This past week, the Biden administration said it supported waiving intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines, which would need approval from the World Trade Organisation. And even then, experts warn that pharmaceutical companies around the world would need technological help to make the vaccines and time to ramp up production.

European leaders such as Ms von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron have made it clear that they think Mr Biden should take a different tack: Lift export restrictions on vaccines, an approach that the United States has employed to keep most doses for use domestically.

"We call upon all vaccine-producing countries to allow export and to avoid measures that disrupt the supply chains," Ms von der Leyen said in a speech this past week.

But the matter is not so absolute, said Dr Thomas Tsai, a professor who researches health policy at Harvard University. "What's really needed is an all-of-the-above approach," he said. Waiving patents is a big, long-term step, he said, but lifting export bans would provide help sooner.

"There is a need to move toward a more comprehensive strategy" in vaccinating the world, Dr Tsai said. "We need that same sort of Warp Speed type of commitment. It's an investment."

Dr Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration's top adviser on Covid, said Sunday (May 9) that the United States and other countries, as well as vaccine manufacturers, particularly need to help address the crisis right now in India, where less than 10 per cent of the vast population is at least partly vaccinated as the country battles a devastating virus wave.

"Other countries need to chip in to be able to get either supplies to the Indians to make their own vaccines or to get vaccines donated," Dr Fauci said on ABC's "This Week." "One of the ways to do that is to have the big companies that have the capability to make vaccines to really scale up in a great way, to get literally hundreds of millions of doses to be able to get to them."

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