Inoculating billions of people against Covid-19 in the shortest possible time was always going to be a massive, unprecedented operation in terms of scale and complexity.
The urgent need to save lives, health systems and economies, along with the logistical challenges posed by the need to store the vaccines at extremely low temperatures, demand superb operational capabilities, inspired leadership and dedicated health workers.
At the global level, the priority is to inoculate enough people to stop the coronavirus’s spread, and to avoid widening the divide between rich and poor nations.
The World Health Organization’s Covax alliance aims to provide vaccinations for up to 20 percent of the population of countries that cannot afford to buy them. More efforts are likely to follow, to raise this percentage.
What was not expected was that some of the richest nations would be embroiled in a nasty quarrel that can only shake confidence in the promises for a fair distribution of vaccines across the world.
The dispute between the European Commission and British-based AstraZeneca was prompted by production problems in Belgian factories producing vaccines for this company and for Pfizer. AstraZeneca, which is expected to get approval for its vaccine from the European Union authorities today, announced that by the end of March it will only deliver 31 million of the 80 million vaccines that it agreed to with the Commission.
Given the lower production of the Pfizer vaccine, this is a heavy blow to the vaccination programs of the EU member-states and to the Commission’s credibility. In the EU about 2 percent of the population has received one dose (as is the case in Greece), whereas in Israel the figure is 49 percent, in the United Kingdom 11.3 percent and in the United States 7.1 percent.
The Commission demands that AstraZeneca abide by the agreement, sending vaccines from Britain to the EU if necessary, while threatening exports from the EU to Britain. London rejects this. A few weeks after Brexit, the governments of the EU member states and Britain are talking tough. Now Germany is preparing to close its borders to people from countries (including Britain) where new strains of the coronavirus are spreading, whether the rest of the EU agrees or not.
The loss of trust between the nations of Europe will multiply the woes that the pandemic has already brought.