Today, just under 12 million people around the world can call themselves ‘fully vaccinated’ after being vaccinated against Covid-19 twice. Approximately two-thirds of these lucky recipients live in the United States or Israel. The backlog among EU Member States is growing. Expectations are that the pace will pick up in the coming months.

If the current pace is sustained, it will be many years before a lot of countries will have built up enough herd immunity to consign the corona pandemic to the history books. Which was the main focus of last week’s issue. This week, ‘Corona in Europe’ is about why the global group of frontrunners group are increasingly disappearing from view. This can be clearly seen by comparing the top ten this week with the top ten of two weeks ago.

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Stumbling out of the starting blocks

Denmark, after a flying start, is still the EU country with the most shots per capita. Yet with just 4.9 per cent, even the Danes are nowhere near the top five. On the map, the disparity between non-EU countries such as Serbia and Great Britain and the rest is unmistakable. According to the ‘new calculation method‘ adopted by the Dutch government, 1.62% of the inhabitants of the Netherlands had been vaccinated at least once by the beginning of February. Thanks to this ‘ new calculation method’, Latvia has been overtaken. Bulgaria remains the biggest straggler in the EU with just 0.61% of its population fully vaccinated.

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Full speed ahead?

Is the Netherlands really vaccinating so slowly or is everyone else doing this much more quickly? Neither. In fact, everywhere in Europe, except Serbia and the United Kingdom, it’s all proceeding at a snail’s pace. This slow progress is largely due to the later start date of the vaccination campaign, which in the name of ‘due diligence’ was not possible at the same time as everywhere else. Nevertheless, the image that the Netherlands is the slowest of all is not quite accurate. With an average daily increase of 0.08%, our country is more or less at the same rate as Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

Dwindling stocks and delivery problems

There are few signs of any acceleration compared to previous weeks. For many countries, there is a clear reason for this: Dwindling stocks and bottlenecks in the delivery process. There is even the threat of an acute shortage in five countries if new supplies are not delivered promptly. Starting this week, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is publishing the number of vaccines delivered on their new Vaccine Tracker dashboard. What does it reveal? Some countries are unable to scale up at all because they have run out of vaccines.

The following chart provides an instant insight into this bottleneck per country. The reason why countries show figures ‘above 100%’ is because of the ‘more economical’ vaccination method that makes it possible to squeeze an extra dose out of a Pfizer vial. Six instead of five.

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The Netherlands – the vaccine hoarder of Europe

According to the Dutch Minister of Health Hugo de Jonge, a large part of this sluggish pace can be attributed to supply problems. However, the figures show that the Netherlands is actually the EU country where this shortage is not exactly a problem. Just over half of the Dutch 757,000 Pfizer vaccines are still stored in a freezer in Oss. This makes us the largest vaccine hoarder in the European Union.

Ironically, this also makes the much-promised catch-up possible if the delivery problems persist elsewhere. Spain, Lithuania, Slovenia, Latvia and Portugal are almost completely out of stock. Poland and Denmark are also in the danger zone. It is unclear why so many vaccines are stored here in the Netherlands. It could be a deliberate buffer or stocks could have been built up unintentionally. This could be due to capacity shortages somewhere down the line in the logistics chain.

Consider it a stroke of luck. The vaccination operation in the Netherlands could continue at its current pace for weeks, even if no additional COVID-19 vaccines were to be delivered.

No shortage of stock

Because the whole world is crying out for corona serums. Plus this is the largest logistics operation in the history of humanity. So, shortages are to be expected. As a result, scaling up to the optimum rate as seen in the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel in early 2021 is not possible. How can these countries not have problems with this? In a nutshell: the European Union’s procurement policy.

The British and Americans have been able to keep up their pace because not only do they have their logistics in order, they also have a stock of tens of millions of serums. This is because they were able to act much faster in negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies than the bureaucratic Brussels in which every decision has to be discussed in internal meetings.

Even the European Inclusive Vaccine Alliance, comprising the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany, was unable to prevent Anglo-Saxon competition from striking quicker deals with pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna. Politico magazine wrote an extremely readable retrospective on this

Frustration, procrastination and blunders

What are the consequences? Factories in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany where large quantities of vaccines destined for the United Kingdom roll off the assembly line every day. All the while, stocks within the EU continue to dwindle. Although we are paying considerably less for the inoculations than the rest of the world. While in December, EU President Ursula Von der Leyen proudly fired the starting shot for the historic European vaccination campaign, less than a month later she is the center of criticism in a long-running diplomatic pharmaceutical drama that reached an embarrassing low in last week’s trade dispute with AstraZeneca.

Is the EU now paying the price for its own thriftiness, cumbersome decision-making processes and procrastination? It certainly seems that way. The British had completed the deal with the Oxford manufacturer three months earlier. Yet tiny Israel was prepared to pay a hefty sum of money plus valuable medical data for their place in Pfizer’s fast lane.

Some countries, such as Hungary, have so little confidence in the collective EU procurement that, following the Serbian example, they have sought refuge in Russian and Chinese vaccines, which they are now trying to obtain on their own. Despite the fact there is a considerable chance of further setbacks in the coming months concerning supplies to EU countries, the frugal Dutch will be able to manage for a while thanks to – or in spite of – our ‘carefully’ stockpiled supplies.

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