BRUSSELS — The people on television were joyous: Jubilant Britons were receiving the world’s first shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in early December.
Less joyous were many people watching in Germany, where the vaccine was created yet where the government was telling citizens it would be weeks before they could launch their own vaccination program.
“Millions Getting German Vaccine, but We Have to Keep Waiting,” read the headline in the Berlin tabloid B.Z. “The World Is Vaccinating — Not Germany,” read the newsmagazine Focus.
For Germans and other Europeans, it has been particularly galling to watch as the United States and Britain, which were less disciplined in their lockdowns and pandemic precautions, have vaulted ahead in the vaccine race. In fact, former President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson had all the more incentive to grasp at vaccines as their countries became among the worst hit in the world.
There is no doubt that the European Union bungled many of the early steps to line up vaccines. It was slower off the mark, overly focused on prices while the U.S. and Britain made dollars and pounds no object, and it succumbed to an abundance of regulatory caution. All those things have left the bloc flat-footed as drugmakers fall behind on their promised orders.
But the 27 countries of the European Union are also attempting something they have never tried before and have broken yet another barrier in their deeper integration — albeit shakily — by choosing to cast their lot together in the vaccine hunt.
In doing so, they have inverted the usual power equation of the bloc. Bigger, richer countries like Germany and France — which could have afforded to sign contracts directly with drugmakers, as the United States and Britain did — saw their vaccine campaigns delayed by the more cumbersome joint effort, while smaller countries wound up with better supply terms than they were likely to have negotiated on their own.
For the bulk of EU nations, that experiment has been beneficial. But it has not necessarily been greeted happily in the disadvantaged wealthiest countries, and it has left leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France open to criticism at home.
They and EU leaders have nonetheless stood by their decision and the impulse for solidarity, even as the finger-pointing has begun.
“What would people have said if Germany and France had been in competition with one another for the purchase or production of vaccines? That would have been chaos,” Macron told a news conference Friday, after a virtual meeting with Merkel. “That would have been counterproductive, economically and from a public health perspective, because we will only come out of this pandemic when we have vaccinated enough people in Europe.”
But even as the leaders of Europe’s traditional power duo talked up the 2.3 billion doses ordered as an indication of the wisdom of a joint approach, they conceded that a full campaign could not be expected before March, leaving the bloc mired in controversy and recrimination, and perhaps a little regret.
With just over 3% of EU nationals having received at least one dose of a vaccine by the end of last week, in stark contrast to Britain’s 17% and the United States’ 9%, nowhere does the lag sting more than in Germany, the bloc’s biggest economy and de facto leader.
“I must have called the hotline 100 times,” said Klaus Kater, 80, a retired lawyer in Germany who said he spent two days hitting redial before he could get through to health officials in his home state of Lower Saxony.
His efforts landed him on a waiting list, he said. “They asked me how to notify me when my turn is up, so I said to send me a letter, just to be safe.” He had no idea when that could be.
To be sure, not all those problems — like underequipped phone lines — are the fault of the European Union. But as frustrations mount the bloc has become an easy whipping boy for all sorts of vaccine-related issues it wasn’t meant to solve in the first place.
Experts say that Germany could potentially have been faster to get vaccines for its population had it acted on its own, but ultimately it would have been a disaster to abandon the EU joint effort in many other ways.
“It would have been a catastrophe for Germany to break from the joint procurement, politically, but also economically if Germany alone had secured the vaccine and the rest not,” said Guntram Wolff, director at Brussels-based research institute Bruegel.
Wolff added that given Germany was at the heart of Europe’s open labor market, and shared borders with nine other countries, ensuring the whole of the bloc was getting vaccines was a matter not just of politics but also of self interest.
“Most of the EU countries would have found it very difficult to negotiate the contracts and secure the supply on their own,” said Wolff. “And I think the pharmaceutical companies themselves, they also preferred the centralized approach.”
Still, Merkel has struggled to defend her government’s decision to have Germany forgo the opportunity to acquire its own vaccine.
Back in March 2020, when Italians were dying on stretchers outside overwhelmed hospitals, the German and French governments blocked exports of essential protective equipment such as masks.
It was a disastrous moment for Europe, one its leaders quickly decided must not be repeated as the pandemic took hold of the bloc’s economies and shuttered its societies, and Britain finally exited the union after four years of painful negotiations.
Public health is usually handled by individual member states, but a decision was made to grant powers to the European Commission, the bloc’s much-maligned, stodgy Brussels-based administrative arm, to lead the negotiations to secure vaccines.
By then it was June, and Europe was already four months behind the United States and three behind Britain in approaching pharmaceutical companies.
More recently, the vaccine race has been viewed, correctly or not, through the prism of Brexit. The Johnson government in particular has cited its lead in distributing vaccines as proof that formal exit from the bloc at the start of the new year was the right thing to do.
At a minimum it has put Britain and the European Union in competition, and increased rancor as the British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca informed Brussels in January that it would slash its planned deliveries of vaccines to the bloc because of production difficulties, while providing Britain with its full order.
EU officials accused the company of prioritizing its home country, while AstraZeneca said Britain’s three-month head start in orders had given the company time to smooth out production glitches similar to the ones that the EU supply was now experiencing.
To appease critics, Merkel resorted to explaining to the public the difficulties involved in producing vaccines, pointing to more production facilities in the United States and Britain as reasons those countries began their campaigns earlier.
“I think that by and large, nothing has gone wrong,” Merkel told public broadcaster ARD on Tuesday. “Of course, the question arises: Why is the United States faster, why is Israel faster, why is the United Kingdom faster? That rankles, of course,” she added, without offering an answer.
Other top European leaders have sought to move forward from the tumult of the last few weeks surrounding derailed vaccine deliveries.
Since the bloc’s confrontation with AstraZeneca, in which it adopted protectionist measures to squeeze the company and nearly imploded already fragile relations with Britain, a more forward-looking sense of self-reflection and action has taken hold in Brussels.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who came under severe personal criticism for her handling of the vaccine procurement process, conceded that Europe had discounted how difficult vaccine production would be.
“A start of vaccination does not mean a seamless flow of vaccine doses coming from the industry,” von der Leyen told European news organizations this month. “This is a bitter learning part, and this we certainly have underestimated.”
Von der Leyen also hired Moncef Slaoui, a Belgian American senior pharmaceutical executive who worked on the U.S. Operation Warp Speed, as a consultant, and European leaders have tried to gently nudge her toward a more proactive approach with the new vaccines that are showing promising signs.
Making vaccines is complicated, as Germany’s left-leaning Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in an editorial, adding that the government’s actual failure had been a failure to communicate that effectively to the public.
“Germany shares the fate of the slow pace of immunization with the rest of the world, with very few exceptions,” the paper wrote in an editorial Tuesday. “Despite all of the impatience and exhaustion, even science and technology have limits.”
Still, despite political musings that point to a “mistakes made, lessons learned” moment for the European Commission, the hardest part of correcting the bloc’s course and bringing vaccination up to speed will be changing the attitudes inside the institutions that drive the process.
“I would like to say that when we are trying to constantly compare with the U.S., we should not have any complex,” the commission’s top vaccines official and head of its health division, Sandra Gallina, said in a parliamentary hearing last week.
“I am not jealous of what Biden is doing, because in actual fact the situation here in Europe is, may I say, better,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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