As COVID-19 numbers boom and markets tank, Europe’s leaders urge vaccine coordination

The European Commission urged the EU’s member countries on Thursday to develop a common strategy for the deployment of coronavirus vaccines, if and when they become available in a safe form.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides warned that “time is running out” owing to the rapid rise of infection rates in Europe.

Germany has just seen a record daily increase in new cases—6,638 reported on Thursday—while France is introducing new nighttime curfews for the next four weeks, and the British government is about to introduce tough restrictions in London, too. Overall Europe has now overtaken the U.S. in new-case rates for the first time since the early days of the pandemic.

European stock markets tanked Thursdaythe Stoxx 600 was down 2.4% in late morning trading—on fears over incoming restrictions, plus the likely failure of U.S. leaders to agree on a new stimulus package anytime soon.

In this context the Commission, the EU’s executive body, on Thursday released a set of criteria that countries have to take into account.

These include the capacity of their vaccination services to deliver the shots; making the vaccines easy and affordable for people to access; figuring out logistical issues such as cooled transport and storage; and “clear communication on the benefits, risks, and importance of COVID-19 vaccines to build public trust.”

Avoiding lockdowns

“We are helping EU countries prepare their vaccination campaigns: who should be vaccinated first, how to have a fair distribution, and how to protect the most vulnerable. If we want our vaccination to be successful, we need to prepare now,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a statement.

“Everyone’s first priority should be to do what it takes to avoid the devastating consequences of generalized lockdowns,” said Kyriakides. “The vaccine will not be a silver bullet, but it will play a central role to save lives and contain the pandemic. And when and if a safe and efficient vaccine is found, we need to be prepared to roll it out as quickly as possible, including building citizens’ trust in its safety and efficacy.”

Public trust in vaccinations has actually been increasing in Europe over recent years. A study published last month in The Lancet found improvements even in countries, such as France and Italy, that have strong anti-vaxxer movements. Nonetheless, that study ended before COVID-19 struck, and the pandemic has seen many conspiracy theories around the concept of a coronavirus vaccine, including the idea that the pandemic was somehow planned in order to inject everyone with microchips.

The Commission has already been playing a coordinating role in the potential procurement of a coronavirus vaccine. It has signed advance purchase agreements with AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Sanofi-GSK to secure supplies when they become available, and is still in negotiations with BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, and CureVac.

The pandemic has seen an unprecedented push in the pharmaceutical industry, but the road to a successful and safe COVID-19 vaccine is not yet clear, as demonstrated this week when J&J had to pause its late-stage trials owing to a volunteer’s illness.

Prioritizing distribution

When it comes to distribution, all EU member states will be able to get their hands on the vaccines at the same time, with the size of their orders being pegged to the size of their populations. They will buy the vaccines from the drug companies at prices that were established during the negotiations.

The Commission is not telling member states the order in which they have to distribute the vaccines internally, but on Thursday it did provide examples of what the priority groups of recipients should be, namely: health care and long-term-care facility workers; people over the age of 60; people at high risk owing to health issues; essential workers; people who can’t socially distance; and “more disadvantaged socioeconomic groups.”

This chimes with a warning issued by the World Health Organization, whose chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said healthy young people could have to wait until 2022 to get vaccinated, assuming a safe vaccine appears next year.

“There will be a lot of guidance coming out, but I think an average person, a healthy young person might have to wait until 2022 to get a vaccine,” Swaminathan said.

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