AstraZeneca reluctance: consequence of faltering EU vaccination strategy?

By Gregory Lens

Imagine a scene in a medical thriller in which safe and thoroughly checked vaccines against a highly contagious and deadly disease are available, at last providing a way out of a global pandemic that has been holding the world hostage for over a year. In that movie, the protagonists refuse the vaccine that has been proven to be effective in the hopes of receiving another vaccine, thereby postponing the long-awaited herd immunity solely through personal vaccine preference. Most movie-watchers would be appalled and describe the script as unrealistic. However, this scenario is not fiction but the bitter reality in the European Union. When vaccination against Covid-19 is the primary concern all over the world, various European states report stockpiles of unused Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines in their vaccination centers. 

Vaccine rollout in the European Union is the second-lowest in the developed world. So why are its people so reluctant to get inoculated with one of the already sparsely available vaccines? The main cause for the stocked fridges is the bad reputation the joint British-Swedish produced vaccine has received. This reputation has been tarnished by a plethora of negative criticism, ranging from ineffectiveness in older age groups and limited protection against new strains of the virus to a rushed authorization process. The psychological issue related to AstraZeneca hesitancy can be traced back to early claims made by high-ranking EU figures, including French President Emmanuel Macron. 

After the pharmaceutical giant failed to deliver its promised doses to the EU in early February, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides condemned the company. They demanded increased production to fulfil contractual obligations. In his subsequent responses to mounting criticism, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot announced that the drugmaker would not be able to increase capacity to live up to its promised deliveries. The adverse publicity related to this battle between the company and the European Commission planted the seeds for the negative reputation that would soon adhere to the Anglo-Swedish vaccine. Shortly after the public rift between AstraZeneca and the Commission, doubts about the vaccine’s effectiveness were proclaimed. Various states consequently limited the jab to people under the age of 65, while some even lowered the limit to 55. Why were these doubts cast only on this particular vaccine? 

The EU has been trailing the United Kingdom in vaccine deliveries and approval of vaccines by different manufacturers, ultimately leading to a comparatively extremely low vaccination rate. This has led to the EU facing criticism from its citizens and even from EU parliament members. The UK is moving towards a vaccination rate of 30%, while most EU member states are still stuck in the single digits.* Since Brexit, the UK has the power to roll out vaccines without having to wait for approval by the Amsterdam-based European Medicines Agency (EMA). At a time during which the UK is touting its newly found freedom from the Union as a cause for its successful vaccination campaign, could undermining the primary vaccine developed and deployed in the UK be a strategy of the EU to save its face?

By casting doubts over the vaccine’s effectiveness, the number of inoculated people would not matter anymore. If the jab were deemed ineffective, the percentages of vaccinated people would be rendered meaningless if they were believed not to be protected after all. 

Faced with growing frustration, EU leaders might have been convinced that the only solution to deflect criticism from the EU vaccination strategy was to create mistrust over its former member state’s successful campaign. The Commission has repeatedly emphasized the importance of vaccine quality and approval by the EMA over fast-tracking to speed up the campaign. Through maintaining the quality-over-quantity narrative, the EU continues to portray the UK campaign as rushed. 

Whether the intent to deliberately discredit the AstraZeneca vaccine did indeed exist will remain a question mark. As opposed to the reason behind the doubts, the consequences are crystal clear. Vast amounts of doses remain unused in European medical stock facilities, even after staunch critics of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine have backtracked their past statements after they were disproved by extensive research. It remains uncertain whether an already vaccine-wary general public will be as eager to revise its opinion on the vaccine as its leaders have done.

*at the time of writing on 4 March 2021

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