A perfect AstraZeneca storm is brewing in Europe

AstraZeneca vaccine

"The fact that you made worse decisions in the past shouldn't be an excuse to make bad decisions in the present." — Sanhita Baruah, a poet and author.

How else can one process the mess now unfolding in Europe, which has already been struggling with the mission of the moment: getting COVID vaccines into arms. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, one of Europe's main lifelines, has made headlines in recent days, though it can be hard to discern "whether it's a real signal or whether it's just noise."


The backstory: The European Union has been betting on AstraZeneca to inoculate much of its population (it purchased 400 million doses) and restore normalcy. But after dozens of blood clotting events occurred in people who had received the jab, a handful of European countries moved to suspend the rollout pending an investigation by the European Medicines Agency.

Critics say that the move is an over-reaction because the cases are far below the number of clotting events that would be expected in the general population, while cautioning that coincidence and correlation are not the same thing.

Did the EU muff it — again? Brussels has already been broadly criticized for bungling its vaccine drive. But it seems not to have learnt from past mistakes, and again, has made a series of missteps in recent weeks.

Initially, some EU countries restricted the AstraZeneca jab to people under 65, citing a lack of safety and efficacy data. Some later reversed course, but the damage had been done, with many Europeans expressing hesitancy to take a vaccine first cast as of dubious quality.

And more recently, when AstraZeneca and the World Health Organization pleaded with Brussels to continue rolling out the jab, Brussels sounded the alarm, resulting in political heavyweights Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, and Norway hitting pause on vaccinations.

Sowing seeds of doubt. Many experts believe that the EMA will soon determine that the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe and encourage European governments to resume the rollout. But in sowing the seeds of doubt without good cause, Brussels has already deterred people in Europe — home to some of the biggest anti-vaccine communities in the world — from rolling up their sleeves. The flip-flopping and excessive caution coming out of Brussels surely won't convince more Europeans to get vaccinated and help hard-hit countries move towards herd immunity.

More crucially, the longer it takes to immunize people, the more likely that new variants develop that are more resistant to current COVID-19 vaccines, which will in turn lead to preventable deaths and deepen economic pain. Time simply isn't on the EU's side.

A combustible situation. This setback comes as many European countries are experiencing surging COVID caseloads. More than three quarters of Italians have now been ordered back into strict lockdowns as Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi warns of a "new wave of contagion." Similarly, European states like France, Hungary, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic are grappling with new waves of infection forcing new lockdowns and border closures. "Spring in the European Union is going to be dismal," one commentator recently wrote.

For months, pandemic fatigue — and the political backlash — have been slowly setting in. Germans, frustrated with a lockdown in place since last November, took their anger out at the ballot box last weekend by giving Angela Merkel's CDU party its lowest vote percentages in decades in two state elections.

Spreading fear abroad. But the effects of the European fiasco resonate far beyond the continent. The COVAX facility has banked its success on the AstraZeneca jab, which is cheaper and easier to store than other vaccines on the market. Many low and middle-income countries participating in the COVAX scheme don't have the luxury of pausing rollouts and changing tack midway. It's for this reason that the World Health Organization cautioned the EU to reassure its residents rather than rile them up.

EU shame: As Brussels lags behind, EU countries are increasingly buying jabs from China and Russia to make up the difference, and turning to Israel for help in managing vaccine distribution. For now, the EU's embarrassing missteps continue, costing precious time — and precious lives.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

More Show less

Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

More Show less

In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

More Show less

When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

More Show less

YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

More Show less

Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal