By Kasia Lipa
Last November, Pfizer and Moderna announced that their vaccines are over 90% effective against the COVID-19 virus. Soon after, many countries began administering their first vaccinations. The flurry of news reignited hope across the world as everyone was eager to return to their lifestyles prior to the pandemic. The top four countries leading the global race to vaccinate are Israel, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. The European Union trails behind, receiving sharp criticism for their slow efforts in vaccine distribution.
Before the vaccines were available, the European Union (EU) set up a scheme to allow the purchase of vaccines on behalf of the member states, to which all 27 members agreed. During the first wave of the virus, many member states introduced export controls of protective equipment. At the time, this restriction angered countries which were hit more severely by the virus, such as Italy. This along with the want to avoid competition amongst wealthy countries (i.e. Germany) to less wealthy countries (i.e. Bulgaria) is the reasoning behind the EU’s actions.
Alexander Stubb, the former Finnish prime minister, stressed the importance of unity between countries of different sizes and economies on Twitter. He tweeted that, “Small EU states would have had virtually no negotiating power with the big pharmaceutical companies. Big states would have swept the doses … This would have led to frustration and delayed Europe’s capacity to get out of the pandemic.”
Yet despite this collective decision on unity, the EU faced supply shortages. At the beginning of the new year, AstraZeneca told the bloc at short notice that they would not be able to meet the signed commitment of 300 million doses. They could only deliver a fraction with no plausible explanation. It didn’t stop here; Pfizer, at the same time, temporarily delayed shipments for the next few weeks as the pharmaceutical firm worked on increasing capacity at its Belgian processing plant. The EU signed a deal with Pfizer for 600 million doses.
The reduction in vaccines irritated nations like Poland and Italy, who threatened legal action against the pharmaceutical companies as the number of cases surged in many parts of Europe. However, many members of the EU took it upon themselves to search for doses, despite their agreement in mutually approving the vaccines available in the market and the negotiations to the bloc. Hungary approved and bought Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm. Other smaller countries, like Croatia and Czech Republic, are considering doing the same. Even the wealthy nations secured controversial deals; Germany set a deal with Pfizer for an additional 30 million doses.
The hunt for doses became dangerous as some senior government officials were sent unsolicited, fraudulent offers; though, some seemed legitimate. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, commented, “… in a crisis like this you’ll always have people who seek benefit or profit from the problems of others and we see a growing number of frauds and fraud attempts.” The uncertainty during this pandemic fed into opportunities for scammers to prey on the most vulnerable, whether it was selling fake N95 and KN95 masks on Amazon and eBay or asking for personal information with unemployment-benefit scams.
However, given the slow vaccine deliveries, it may not hurt to further investigate some of these offers. Cesare Buquicchio, a spokesperson for Italy’s Ministry of Health, said, “If these doses are legally purchased and there was a fully regular process, we could also consider purchasing it … we could rediscuss this at a European level.” Given the great lengths some members of the bloc have taken to provide the vaccine to their citizens, it may not be as surprising if this is one of the routes Europeans take.
If you are eligible, willing to get the vaccine and a resident of New York, please check covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov for information about the approved vaccines and the instructions on how to register for a vaccine at New York State-Operated Vaccination Sites.