Irish Examiner view: Patience thins as EU exports 34m vaccines

Irish Examiner view: Patience thins as EU exports 34m vaccines

European health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides,  criticising AstraZeneca for failing to deliver the promised doses of its coronavirus vaccine. Picture: John Thys/Pool Photo via AP

It says something deeply reassuring that it took science less than a year to deliver vaccines capable of controlling, or at least containing, Covid-19.  Last November's announcement — not yet six months ago — that several elixirs had been found was a moment to celebrate. 

Then, human nature, as it always must, intervened, in the form of vaccine nationalism and commercial opportunism, as did the consequences of limited production capacity. So, too, did the oldest of all of the laws of economics: The monkey with the biggest stick gets all the coconuts. 

That means a very small country like this is at the end of a very long, noisy queue and, like it or not, is dependent on the kindness of strangers, even if we are joined with those strangers in an alliance like the European Union. 

Our relative affluence has not made any great difference, which, perversely, underlines how very exposed the world's poorer countries are right now. 

Repeated revisions of our vaccination programmes, because of extended delivery schedules, undermine the confidence generated by the discovery of vaccines.

The deferrals have political consequences, too, especially when it is necessary to have faith in our national ability to deliver a mass-vaccination programme. 

That system has been put under further pressure because of botched EU efforts. European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has acknowledged "mistakes were made", particularly the ham-fisted use of Article 16.

Those errors, however, pale into insignificance compared to the news that 34m doses of vaccine have been exported from the EU, including 9m to the UK and 1m to the US. 

This tremendous figure, despite queues of anxious citizens across Europe, is put in context by the fact that Ireland will get only a further 46,500 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as part of a new EU deal.

Had those 34m vaccines gone to the world's poor countries, then it might be a moment to concede to greater needs, but that they have gone to rich countries just confirms the monkey-big-stick law of economics. 

According to The Guardian newspaper, March 9 figures show that of 34,090,287 doses exported from the EU to 31 countries, 9,106,162 went to the UK, 3,917,640 to Canada, 3,134,204 to Mexico, 2,720,210 to Japan, and 1,368,900 to Saudi Arabia. Other destinations included Hong Kong (1.3m), Singapore (967,030), the US (953,723), Chile (942,825), and Malaysia (751,140).

At a moment when EU solidarity and its very purpose come under renewed scrutiny, these are challenging figures that demand a plausible explanation.

One may be that the world was vulnerable because vaccine-production facilities were unequal to the challenge. 

That vulnerability was underlined this week by Washington telling the EU that it should not expect AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines manufactured in  the US any time soon. 

This is yet another blow to the bloc's supplies and one of the reasons Germany is working to produce at least 360m doses a year within the EU.

In a global programme like this, there are bound to be difficulties, inequities, and occasional dishonesties, and there will be more. 

Nevertheless, we should expect much more from the EU than a shrug of the shoulders and the news that enough vaccines to meet our needs by a factor of six have been exported from the EU while we are asked, time and time again, to be patient.  

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