BRUSSELS — The calls began in December, as the United States prepared to administer its first batches of Covid-19 vaccine. Even then, it was clear that the European Union was a few weeks behind, and its leaders wanted to know what they could learn from their American counterparts.
The questions were the same, from President Emmanuel Macron of France, President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission, and Alexander De Croo, the prime minister of Belgium.
“How did you do it?” Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the United States vaccine czar, recalled them asking on the calls. “And what do you think we missed?”
Since then, the rollout gap between Europe and the United States has only widened, and some of the countries hardest hit early in the pandemic are facing a deadly third wave of infections. France, large parts of Italy, and other regions are back in lockdown. Roughly 20,000 Europeans die of Covid-19 each week.
temporarily halt the distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Most of them resumed using it on Friday, after Europe’s top drug regulator vouched for its safety, but public confidence in the shot has been badly shaken.
Vaccine salvation remains, for now, still tantalizingly out of reach. Only about 10 percent of Europeans have received a first dose, compared with 23 percent in the United States and 39 percent in Britain.
There is no single culprit. Rather, a cascade of small decisions have led to increasingly long delays. The bloc was comparatively slow to negotiate contracts with drugmakers. Its regulators were cautious and deliberative in approving some vaccines. Europe also bet on vaccines that did not pan out or, significantly, had supply disruptions. And national governments snarled local efforts in red tape.
leaders pointing fingers over why some of the world’s richest countries, home to factories that churn out vast quantities of vaccine, cannot keep pace with other wealthy nations in injecting its people.
Compared with nearly all the rest of the world, the European Union is in an admirable position. Its leaders say it remains feasible to vaccinate 70 percent of the Continent by this summer. The bloc has ordered enough doses to fully vaccinate its population at least three times, to the consternation of countries that will wait years for full coverage.
But Europeans are stung, especially, to see Britain’s rollout going so well after the country exited the bloc. Everyone wants to know why the E.U. has not triumphed.
‘Not Equipped for a Gunfight’
The European Union trailed the United States and Britain from the start.
Washington had already spent billions on clinical trials and manufacturing by the time Europe decided to pool its resources and negotiate as a bloc. In mid-June, the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, announced a joint vaccine purchase with a $3.2 billion pot.
$10 billion budget. European officials say it’s unfair to compare the two figures because neither amount is a complete picture of all the money spent on vaccines. But there is no dispute that in Washington, officials had decided that money was no object if vaccines could avert the economic cost of a lockdown. Europe, on the other hand, was on a tight budget, so its negotiators chased cheaper doses.
“Pricing has been important since the beginning,” Sandra Gallina, the E.U.’s main vaccine negotiator, told lawmakers in February. “We are talking about taxpayers’ money.”
AstraZeneca has slashed its delivery plans, telling European leaders that it would hand over 100 million fewer doses by the middle of the year, according to the commission’s president, Ms. von der Leyen.
Only one in five French people now trust the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to a poll by the Elabe Institute published Tuesday.
Now Europe is striking a more aggressive tone about protecting its interests. Italy blocked a small shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia earlier this month. Ms. von der Leyen upped the ante this week, threatening to use an emergency mechanism, last used during the 1970s oil crisis, that would allow the bloc to seize production of vaccines.
“It is hard to explain to our citizens why vaccines produced in the E.U. are going to other countries,” Ms. von der Leyen said.
‘A Minor Communication Problem’
Early this month, Toon Vanagt, a Belgian tech entrepreneur, accompanied his 77-year-old father to a vaccination center north of Brussels. Mr. Vanagt, 47, was not eligible for the vaccine himself, but a worker there offered him a leftover shot, which he gladly accepted.
software companies have rushed to link patients with doses that would otherwise expire. But in Belgium, when Mr. Vanagt tweeted that he had been vaccinated, it became a mini scandal. Health officials rebuked the vaccine center, which quickly apologized: “A minor communication problem, very quickly rectified.”
Belgium’s rollout is one example of the Continent’s rigid approach to following vaccination guidelines. In a country where nursing home infections led to one of the highest per capita death tolls, the policy was intended to strictly prioritize the neediest residents.
Many European countries are also stockpiling doses to guarantee that everyone who receives a first injection will receive the second dose on time. The United States and Britain have been more flexible, erring on the side of giving more first injections.
“In the U.S., there is a much more flexible, liberal system and you just vaccinate people who come along. Same in the U.K. And it can go quicker. Here it is quite regulated,’’ said Steven Van Gucht, the Belgian government’s top virologist, who said it was too soon to know which system is better.
Administrative hiccups have exacerbated the problems. In Frankfurt, Elke Morgenstern was escorted out of a vaccine center because she enrolled using the wrong online application. “It was embarrassing,” said Ms. Morgenstern, adding that she qualified for a vaccine because of a pre-existing condition.
Because of the AstraZeneca shortages, she cannot book another appointment before May.
“It is a catastrophe how they are handling things here,” she said.
In the Lombardy region of Italy, once the epicenter of the pandemic, the vaccination campaign got off to a slow start in part because the top health care official refused to marshal medical workers over the Christmas holidays. Technical difficulties worsened the problems at the region’s vaccination centers.
“Some sessions were empty,” said Paola Pedrini, the regional secretary general for Italy’s family doctors federation. “For some others, they called 900 people when they could only vaccinate 600.”
For all the problems, Dr. Slaoui said Europeans are in an admirable position. By the numbers, the Continent is about five weeks behind the United States, with vaccine supply expected to increase steadily. “It’s too late to have taken the first bite,” he said. “But they’re in a good place.”
Dr. Van Gucht, of Belgium, agreed. But he said European leaders will likely take nationalistic lessons from the past months.
“I think we relied a little bit too much on the free markets,” he said. “What you really need to do from the beginning is really make sure you produce the vaccines on your territory and that they’re destined for your own population.”
Jason Horowitz and Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Italy and Melissa Eddy from Berlin.
LONDON — Britain’s speedy Covid-19 vaccination program has been dealt a blow by a delivery delay of millions of doses ordered from India, a setback that illustrates the fragility of global supplies and underscores fears that an exit from the pandemic could be hampered by vaccine nationalism.
News of a shortfall that will slow the British vaccine roll out came amid a bitter dispute over supplies between London and the European Union, and a veiled threat from the bloc to use “whatever tool” is necessary to make sure Europe gets its “fair share of vaccines.”
Although the death toll from Covid-19 in Britain now exceeds 125,000, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has outpaced the rest of Europe with a vaccination program that has already provided first doses to more than 25 million people.
But that giddying pace is set to slow as a result of the delay in the delivery of about 4 million doses from India, underscoring the extent to which even successful vaccination programs are at the mercy of supply chains.
for Europe’s sluggish vaccination campaign, said that in the last six weeks, the bloc exported 41 million doses of vaccines to 33 countries. “But open roads run in both directions,” she said in what was a clear warning to Britain, asking for “reciprocity.”
To complicate the picture, 20 European nations have paused partially or completely use of the AstraZeneca vaccine — some supplies of which are produced in Britain — over safety fears.
Doubts about the AstraZeneca vaccine have proved a headache for the authorities since they emerged in Norway after a small number of those who received the vaccine experienced blood clots.
aid Thursday that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “safe and effective,” and that its benefits far outweigh its risks.
European nations will decide individually whether to resume AstraZeneca shots, and at the news conference Mr. Johnson said he expected to be given the jab on Friday.
Jonathan Ashworth, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on health issues, said in Parliament that he supported the vaccine but that worries about it must be addressed. He said he had heard that “hundreds of people failed to show for appointments” in London “and we think that is because of concerns and misinformation circulating online.”
Professor Farrar said it was important that every unusual event after a vaccination was investigated transparently, but added that he had seen “no evidence to date that would cause me to pause the vaccination program,” a step that he called “a bigger risk.”
He also warned that, despite the success of Britain’s vaccination efforts so far, the pandemic was far from over and that the country faced significant threats later this year.
“The big concern for me is the autumn and winter,” he said, with one looming question being whether children would be vaccinated to prevent a new wave of transmission in the fall.
“We cannot assume that we are through this pandemic, and I do have a major concern for the period September to February 2022,” he said. “We need to be preparing for that during the summer and we don’t need to get into the optimism bias of the summer of 2020.”
Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels and Mujib Mashal from Delhi.
BERLIN — European authorities will offer a coronavirus vaccine to every adult in an Austrian district battered by a surge in infections to determine how effective the inoculation is against the variant first found in South Africa.
Starting next week, everyone aged 16 and older living in the Schwaz district, near the western Austrian city of Innsbruck, will be eligible for free shots of the vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech, as part of the unique drive to learn more about fighting the variant.
The study in Austria is part of a much broader global effort to answer a crucial question as the virus mutates and new variants emerge: Do vaccinations designed last year work against more recent mutations? If not, scientists will have to keep developing new versions of the inoculations.
Laboratory studies have shown that some vaccines that work well against earlier variants are less effective — though they still offer significant protection — against the variant known as B.1.351, which was first found in South Africa in December and has become the dominant one there.
the vaccine rollout has lagged among member states, far behind some other wealthy nations. About 6 percent of the bloc’s people have received at least one shot, compared to 16 percent in the United States, 31 percent in Britain and 55 percent in Israel.
angering authorities in Brussels.
The region has been one of Austria’s hardest hit by the coronavirus. The first cases of infection in the country were detected in the state capital of Innsbruck in February 2020. The following month, a superspreader event was traced to the ski resort town of Ischgl, where authorities later determined many Europeans contracted the virus while there on vacation, and then took it home with them.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Hanover, Germany