My Covid-19 vaccine moment came suddenly — and sooner than I had expected.
On Friday April 30, Brussels authorities opened online bookings to my age group. The following Tuesday I went for my first shot at a military hospital on the Belgian capital’s outskirts. After months of reporting on the EU immunisation drive, it felt odd finally to be living it.
My visit highlights how the 27-member bloc’s inoculation campaign has stepped up a gear after initially falling well behind the UK and US.
“It was all very theoretical for such a long period of time,” says Alastair Rabagliati, another just-jabbed British resident of Brussels who, like me, was born in 1974. “I was expecting to be on the waiting list for a while — yet suddenly I was making an appointment for a slot three days later.”
A change in mood is evident in EU headquarters. Top officials are now describing the bloc’s joint vaccine procurement strategy as a triumph. They hail the way EU-based jab makers export large quantities across the globe, whereas those in the US and UK do not.
“Some might say, ‘Well, countries like the US and United Kingdom have been faster at the beginning,’” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said last week. “But I say, Europe achieved this success while remaining open to the world.”
The EU’s immunisation drive still lags behind its US and UK counterparts. The two countries have each administered about 80 doses per 100 people, roughly double the European bloc’s total, according to FT data. But EU nations now regularly post record daily inoculation highs, and some are gaining on the US and UK. The EU as a whole posted a higher vaccination rate than the two nations for the first time on May 6, while Germany has outstripped them every day since April 30.
The improved EU numbers reflect a jump in vaccine supply. The bloc is overcoming early constraints, including a big shortfall in AstraZeneca deliveries and its decision to order the pioneering BioNTech/Pfizer jab months later than the UK. It had received 107m coronavirus vaccines by the end of March but expects 360m more between April and June.
The European Commission has said the region should have enough jabs by July to immunise fully 70 per cent of adults, about 255m people. And it is planning to buy 1.8bn BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines in 2022-23, arguing that it needs the mammoth order to meet demand for boosters and to deal with new coronavirus variants.
Now the bloc’s focus is shifting to national rollout performances there are questions about how member countries are serving various demographics. In Belgium, Brussels has offered jabs to more youthful age groups sooner than Flanders or Wallonia, in part because the capital’s population is younger and because take-up among older people has been lower.
My own experience has been a microcosm of that trend. My appointment paper and identity card were checked three times at the hospital, a sign of the potential obstacles facing vulnerable residents. These include people unable to use electronic or telephone booking systems, or lacking registration cards because they are homeless, undocumented migrants or Roma.
The offer of a jab to an apparently healthy middle-aged person like me also exposes global disparities. Vaccination rates are still very low in other places I’ve lived. Rates are below three doses per 100 people in Thailand, and less than one in Nigeria.
The EU insists it is committed to equitable international vaccine distribution. It says it is prepared to discuss a US proposal to suspend patent rights, but insists it is more important for Washington to release jabs for export. Both the EU and the US are seeking to fend of criticism that they are hoarding vaccines in what Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization chief, has described as a “pattern of patronage that keeps the world’s have-nots exactly where they are”.
I am now a beneficiary of the EU’s ever-growing vaccine abundance. The question for the bloc’s members and other rich nations is how they share their fortune.