Eighteen months after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccination rate has risen rapidly in Europe and the 70% vaccination target set by the European Commission for the end of the summer 2021is on track. The number of hospitalisations and deaths has fallen, although infection rates have been rising in the last weeks and we have to remain cautious.
On the global level, mostly due to the vaccination divide, the health and economic crises are far from over. In fact, the pandemic has further deepened global social and economic imbalances. The recovery is a two-speed one and the post-COVID-19 world risks being more unequal, increasing geopolitical tensions. In this context, we need to enhance our help to our partners. It is not only a moral duty. It is also in our self-interest. If some countries and regions remain unvaccinated, new variants can develop, against which current vaccines do not work.
Looking back, we should be grateful to the scientists around the world, who have developed vaccines within a year after the appearance of a previously unknown virus. In this context, Europe played an important role, as EU support has contributed significantly to the development of the new generation of mRNA vaccines: with 750 million mRNA vaccines doses produced, we are the global leader in this field.
With Team Europe, which involves the European institutions, the member states and the European financial institutions, we have helped our low- and middle-income partners to face the pandemic and provided flexible financial support. Team Europe was born in the crisis and must now become the norm for how European institutions, member states and financial institutions work together to maximise the EU’s global impact.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also confirmed and strengthened our choice in favour of multilateralism. The EU has played a pivotal role in creating the COVAX facility and we will continue advocating for strengthening and reforming the World Health Organisation (WHO), while avoiding any politicisation of science.
That said, we also have to face the fact that we have encountered - and are still encountering - significant problems in the fight against the virus. From the beginning, we have tried to build our response on solidarity and cooperation, both internally and externally. However, at the start of the pandemic, national reflexes were the dominant political answer and it took months before we could see our efforts bearing fruits.
We have seen a geopolitical "battle of narratives", first with masks diplomacy, now with vaccines diplomacy. The response to the pandemic has often been interpreted as a competition among rivals and systems, and there were substantial disinformation campaigns targeting the EU. We have had difficulties in publicising our global engagement, mainly because we wanted to do so through multilateral frameworks. Although we have exported about half of the vaccines produced in Europe and have been the first and most important supporter of COVAX, others have been more visible with their actions.
We have also experienced difficulties in anticipating the impact of measures that were taken within the EU on our partners, including travel restrictions, the export transparency mechanism, or the digital COVID-19 certificate (DCC). This has led to strains, including more recently with the African Union on the recognition of non-European vaccines such as Covishield, the Astra Zeneca licensed vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII), which is the one most widely used by the COVAX facility.
While our initiatives are legitimate instruments in the context of a pandemic, we must ensure that our partners do not perceive our decisions as unfriendly or hostile. To this effect, we need to develop a common understanding on the criteria underpinning these measures, we need to communicate more clearly with our partners, and we need to better manage their expectations.
Looking at the economic side: while the lockdowns and related restrictions have penalised all economies, they weigh more heavily on developing and emerging countries. Advanced countries can rely more on social mechanisms and economic policy levers to limit the impact of the pandemic. Global divergences are also getting worse because of the widening vaccination gap. According to the WHO, by mid-2021, we are at over 60% of one dose coverage in the EU, while on a global scale the average is only 24% and in low-income countries the figure is at a dramatically low 1%.
The WHO predicts that 90% of the African countries will vaccinate less than 10% of their populations by September, warning that Africa urgently requires an extra 225 million doses just to reach this goal. T
If the vaccination gap persists, it risks reversing the trend of declining poverty and global inequalities. Last year, nearly one in three people across the planet — 2.37 billion people — did not have access to sufficient food - an increase of almost 320 million people in a single year (see the State of Food Security and Nutrition Report).
Such a negative dynamic harms worldwide recovery and increases geopolitical tensions. Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), recently raised the alarms on the risks associated to a “two track recovery”. Africa and Latin America are likely to be among the hardest hit regions. Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, rightly told the G20 Finance ministers that “developed economies need to demonstrate solidarity that goes beyond words into meaningful, concrete actions” in order to be able to vaccinate 40% of the world population until the end of 2021 and 60% until mid-2022. The cost of inaction in terms of failing to help vaccinating the whole world would be much higher for advanced economies than what we collectively would have to spend to do so.
In this context, we need to enhance substantially our support and our direct donations. Until now, the EU and its member states have provided 9.5 million vaccine doses to Africa, of which only 3.6 million via COVAX or as a direct donation. In total, the EU has donated so far 25.5 million doses through COVAX or as direct donations of member states to Sub-Saharan Africa, the MENA region, Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia. With these figures, we are not yet living up to our global responsibilities. At the last European Council, EU member states have committed to donate more than 100 million doses until the end of 2021. This is a minimum target that we should be able to exceed and member states have so far committed to donate 153 million doses by the end of the year.
In cooperation with vaccine manufacturers, we are also working to increase the EU vaccine production capacities to more than 3 billion doses a year by end-2021, which should enable us to share more doses with partner countries. However, other partners also need to produce more vaccines to join the cooperative approach to global vaccination.
Therefore, we must help enhancing the production of vaccines and health equipment in poorer regions. Africa currently imports 99% of the vaccines it uses. To tackle this problem, the President of the European Commission announced an important Team Europe initiative on manufacturing and access to vaccines, medicines and health technologies in Africa last May. Backed by €1 billion from the EU budget and the European development finance institutions, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB), this initiative will create an enabling environment for local vaccines manufacturing. On 9 July, Commissioner Breton was in Senegal to launch the construction of a new vaccine factory with the country's Institut Pasteur.
In the framework of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the EU has also put forward a proposal to expand the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, as well as to remove export restrictions on vaccines, therapeutics and their components. Finally, creditor countries need to take action at the multilateral level to tackle the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, particularly in terms of debt relief for those countries that are most affected by the crisis. In this respect, there is still a long road in front of us.
To conclude: this pandemic reminds us how strongly linked European internal and external policies are. We must face our global responsibilities and live up to our promises. It has become a cliché to say that we will not be safe until everyone is safe. Nevertheless, it happens to be true. So let’s act on it.