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Why the EU is sitting on millions of unused Covid vaccines

Boxes of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine
REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo
  • Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

Published

For all the talk of Covid-19 vaccine supply issues in the European Union, official data show that close to 13 million doses distributed to member states have not even been administered. Most of those are from AstraZeneca, with many Europeans apparently unwilling to accept that particular jab.

According to the European Centre on Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC), 43.4 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been distributed to countries of the EU or European Economic Area, but only 30.6 million doses have been administered. (The EU medical authority has approved vaccines manufactured by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford/AstraZeneca, but Hungary has also started rolling out jabs made by Chinese firm Sinovac and a Russian research institute, and other countries are negotiating to buy doses from those manufacturers too.)

A breakdown of administered doses by manufacturer clearly shows a pattern; in many countries, the AstraZeneca jab is under-utilized compared to the Pfizer and Moderna jabs. 

Of course, the chart doesn’t tell the full story. First, the Pfizer and Moderna jabs were approved on Dec. 21, 2020 and Jan. 6, 2021, respectively, meaning that countries started distributing those doses before the AstraZeneca jab was even approved on Jan. 29, 2021.

There have also been delays in deliveries of AstraZeneca doses to the EU. The data in the chart don’t show when the AstraZeneca doses were received, so it’s impossible to compare how long it took member states to exhaust their supplies of each jab relative to the others. And several EU countries imposed an age cutoff for the AstraZeneca jab, which is likely slowing down distribution, as clinics struggle to find people who qualify for the jab but are under 65.

Still, it’s clear that EU countries have administered a lower share of their available AstraZeneca doses. That may be because of public health restrictions and mistrust of the jab in these countries, which has been fueled by the public statements of some politicians. It also shows the pitfalls of “vaccine preference,” a problem that is becoming global as people decide that they want one jab over another and stockpiles sit unused on the shelves.

The problems in the EU began two months ago, when German daily Handelsblatt (link in German) claimed that the AstraZeneca shot’s effectiveness was reduced to 8% among the elderly. That turned out to be false, but the EU’s slow approval of the vaccine may have lent credence to those who said it wasn’t as good as the others.

There was further damage after French president Emmanuel Macron claimed thateverything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.” (Last week he backtracked, telling reporters, “If that’s the vaccine that’s offered to me, I will take it, of course.” He is 43.)

The Times of London has also uncovered a disinformation campaign that it alleges originated in Russia, whereby credulous Europeans and others are being targeted with “distorted images” claiming that the AstraZeneca vaccine “could turn people into monkeys because it uses a chimpanzee virus as a vector.”

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