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Is the European vaccine challenge a US problem?

Is the European vaccine challenge a US problem?
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Last summer, European leaders decided to buy vaccines as a bloc to cover their 27 member states. The U.K. went it alone, and like the United States, procured their allotments at risk. Today, we see the results of those plans as the hunt for vaccines has been reduced to a dystopian hunger games where advantaged countries received orders first while the less fortunate remain at the mercy of a still-surging virus.

A series of missteps ultimately led politicians in Europe to halt and then circumscribe the roll out of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine. When launched into the general population, new medicines often report adverse events not detected in smaller, controlled trial settings which is why there is a stringent regulatory process to monitor ongoing safety and take action post haste if need be. 

Unfortunately, the time-tested process devolved into an academic exercise led by politicians versus a critical debate on risks and benefits led by clinicians. And this comes at a time when France and Italy are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and more concerning hospitalizations while Germany weighs a hard lockdown. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the World Health Organization have both stated current benefits of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh risks.

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Leaders might be misplacing their value politicizing statistics while flunking public health. The European Union went all in (on the AstraZeneca vaccine) to the tune of 400 million doses as did many parts of the world without a viable and timely plan B. The fall out has reverberated around the globe especially in the poorest of regions where the Oxford-AstraZeneca profile was a planned advantage (cost and storage). 

Under the UN-backed COVAX partnership, African countries — with a population of 1.3 billion — planned to vaccinate 60 percent of their population by the end of 2022 driven by widespread uptake of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.  And this week Canada followed Europe’s lead by suspending the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in patients under age 55 and younger for similar reasons.

These countries are now scrambling for a back-up vaccine at a time when production and manufacturing are strained. Europe’s reopening has been derailed and a third wave is accelerating resulting in crippling lockdowns against waning public support. With Europe now running two months beyond its goal of inoculating 70 percent of its population by summer-end, hopes for a recovery in travel, trade and tourism have been drastically scaled back.

Pandemic-related losses are mounting and this week the Federal Reserve projected a 6.5 percent growth rate for the United States in 2021 vs. a dampened 3.7 percent forecast for the European economy. Europe will likely pull out after a summer of hurt but let us not lose sight of our combined influence — trust and supply — on the world coming through this.  

For many on the vaccination fence confidence was lost. The famous quote “trust takes years to build but seconds to lose” aptly covers how millions feel about leadership. Data shows vaccine hesitancy is a global issue where in Europe only 36 percent of those surveyed strongly agree with the statement that vaccines are safe. And in France a stalwart of scientific discovery, six out 10 French citizens now report finding the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine unsafe. We are quick to label the hesitant as anti-science, but a quick review of polling highlights a lack of trust in politics as the cause.

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In the U.S., 100 million Americans have received at least one dose with death and hospitalization rates falling. However, we hold a sad place on the global leader board in terms COVID-19 deaths. With the new variants lurking, recent weekly cases in the U.S. trending up, we must continue to respect the threat with humility and appropriate public health measures. It is too early to declare victory on an ever-evolving virus, but the ongoing partnership between the public and private sector has put the U.S. on stronger footing to reopen life while setting us up to help others.

The U.S. only wins this battle if the world wins the war. The virus does not respect national borders or cultural boundaries. Fighting the pandemic is a global security and trade issue.

Despite our home-grown domestic challenges, the U.S. will likely be one of the few countries that will be moving into a vaccine surplus by the winter. And our scientific leadership, production capabilities and access to several vaccines puts us in an advantage position versus many countries heading into a dark fall. Soon we will have an opportunity to bring the rest of the world along with us and we should do so.

Meghan Fitzgerald, DrPH, is an adjunct healthcare policy professor at both the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, City University of New York and author of Ascending Davos: A career journey from the emergency room to the boardroom.

This piece has been updated.