19 March 2021

MP Open Call #6 – Uncertainties on the European Vaccination Rollout

Our MP Open Call at the beginning of March was joined by six parliamentarians from Austria, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Slovenia. They came together to discuss the urgency of an effective vaccination strategy in Europe, reflecting on the deep dissatisfaction expressed by many citizens with the European Union and its member state governments.

Various criticisms of Europe’s slow vaccine campaign were brought forward during the conversation. The timeline of the vaccination campaign, for example, prioritizes older populations over younger ones. Points of criticism regarding this timeline are that it can delay Europe’s economic recovery further and would still leave the group most likely to catch and spread the virus susceptible to it. In contrast, some participants did point out that the campaign is successfully lowering hospitalization rates by prioritizing the primary at-risk demographic. The discussion regarding the vaccination campaign’s timeline reflects two different views on what an effective vaccination strategy should achieve: herd immunity through quick vaccination, or a state of ‘living with the virus’ where the most at-risk groups are vaccinated.

The conversation between the participants continued along two concurrent streams of thought, both focused on identifying the bottleneck in Europe’s vaccination campaign and ways to remove it. The first stream of thought focused on how to expediate the vaccination process now, namely, expanding vaccine acquisition and production at the national level. The second centered around how we could return to a degree of normalcy soon. This latter conversation covered the idea of a vaccination passport in the European Union, which has since then been proposed by the European Commission in the form of a Digital Green Certificate.

Some ideas brought forward by those homing in on the first stream of thought were the exploration of new vaccine options and the nationalization of vaccine production. The discussion took on a geopolitical theme, as different vaccine variants are preferred by different regions. Additionally, European countries have begun to implement national vaccine production efforts to supplement the European Commission’s efforts. One of our participating MPs cited the example that Denmark and Austria have recently struck a new deal with Israel to increase their own vaccine productions and expressed his wish for his country to enact a similar bilateral agreement.

The participants observed how regional and national dynamics are playing out in ‘vaccine geopolitics.’ One MP described how the distrust of the German population toward the AstraZeneca vaccine has made it unwilling to use the country’s stockpiles of the product. In other European countries, public opinion toward AstraZeneca is more favorable than toward the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – reflecting their respective media coverage. The MPs considered how regional competition between the different vaccine products is bottlenecking the actual vaccination process but admitted that it is difficult to gain establish trust in the products. More recently, the delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe was interrupted as inoculation was stopped and resumed by multiple European countries including Germany, France, Italy, and Spain due to concerns of a link to dangerous blood clotting. Ultimately, the European Medicines Agency investigated these concerns, and the vaccine was cleared of such risks.

Finally, the conversation went back to emphasizing how the EU’s comparatively old population is creating a natural bottleneck for the containment of the virus’s spread and, consequently, the bloc’s post-covid economic recovery. As one participant observed, in keeping Europe’s most active and mobile workforce still while the large older generations get vaccinated, the EU is slowing its short-term economic recovery – especially for the member states most reliant on the tourism and service industries. It is also running the risk of lowering the long-term quality of life of its younger generations as they miss out on the opportunity to gain wealth. The participants of the call considered whether the idea of a ‘Green Pass’ – a vaccine passport – could expedite the Union’s socioeconomic recovery by rendering a slow return to economic activity among those who have received a vaccine possible.

As our participants discussed, there are too many unanswered questions regarding the implementation of a Green Pass for it to offer a reassuring solution to Europe’s socioeconomic problem. Some issues raised regarding a vaccine passport are: it still puts younger age groups behind economically as only the older generations would be able to resume their economic activities in the short term; it would too quickly become redundant as the covid-19 virus evolves and “boosters” are necessary to curb it; as it stands, children do not receive a covid-19 vaccine in the first place, while data has shown that they could carry it and infect others, potentially leaving many families unable to travel freely regardless of their vaccination status. Finally, as one MP pointed out, why does Europe not utilize already-recognized international vaccine passes? Among other points, these show the uncertainties an effective Covid-19 green pass proposal would need to consider and overcome.

As our call concluded, there came an understanding that there is much uncertainty in the vaccination rollout in Europe, which is slowly eroding public trust in the process. National parliamentarians can play a role in setting the record straight in the public consciousness through transparent policymaking and communication.

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