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Despite slow start, Europe overtakes the US for vaccinations

While the US and Britain issued emergency authorisations of vaccines to get shots into arms quickly, the EU went through the longer process of granting full approvals, putting it weeks behind.

“I am convinced that we have a good argument to explain to people still hesitating that the vaccine was properly tested in Europe,” Liese said recently. “Now it becomes clear that not only the pace of vaccination in the first months but also the long-term strategy is important.”

The turnaround in Spain has been pronounced. In mid-April, when nearly a quarter of all Americans were fully vaccinated, only 7 per cent of Spaniards were similarly protected, according to Our World in Data. Now, nearly 60 per cent of Spain’s roughly 47 million people are fully vaccinated, while about half the US is.

Portugal, with around 10 million people, had fully vaccinated around a third of its population by the end of June. Now officials say it is on track to reach 70 per cent by the end of the summer.

Like the American vaccination drive, the European Union effort started around Christmas and struggled to meet initial demand. But it quickly turned into a major political embarrassment for European officials, as the US and Britain jumped ahead.

The major factor holding back the EU initially was its decision to purchase vaccines as a bloc instead of as individual countries. The move ensured smaller member nations weren’t left out, but it ended up taking more time to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, said Giovanna De Maio, a visiting fellow in international relations at George Washington University.


The US was also more efficient in distributing the vaccine, quickly setting up large-scale vaccination sites and also supplying shots to neighbourhood pharmacies, groceries and other places, while the EU initially focused on hospitals and other medical facilities, she said.

EU nations were also overly confident manufacturers would deliver. As it turned out, Astra-Zeneca failed to produce its shots on time and delivered a paltry number of doses. Concerns over its safety and effectiveness also contributed to vaccine scepticism. But with the major rollout of the Pfizer shot, things turned around.

Meanwhile, the US vaccination effort peaked and then dropped off dramatically in the face of significant hesitancy and outright hostility, fuelled by misinformation and partisan politics.

As of the end of July, the US was dispensing under 600,000 shots a day on average, down from a peak of over 3.4 million a day in April. The highly contagious delta variant has sent new daily cases soaring over the past month to levels not seen since February. The vast majority of those hospitalised were not vaccinated.


Still, not all is well within the EU. Discrepancies between member states are huge. For example, in the Netherlands, 85 per cent of adults have received at least one dose. In Bulgaria, it is less than 20 per cent.

There are also troubling signs that Europe’s campaign is losing steam.

In Germany, where 54 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, the number of shots being dispensed per day has declined from more than 1 million in May to about 500,000.

Officials there have begun pushing for more vaccinations at megastores and in city centres and are offering incentives. A vaccination drive in Thuringia state included free bratwurst, while sites in Berlin planned to have DJs play music this weekend in hopes of encouraging young people to get inoculated.

De Maio said she believes nationwide vaccine mandates like her native Italy’s Green Pass program could help EU nations avoid America’s fate.

“European politicians see it coming and they’re taking these measures,” she said of the potential for vaccination efforts to stall in Europe. “They’re desperate trying to avoid that because Europe can’t afford another lockdown, given the big economic toll COVID has already taken.”


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