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.

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To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

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Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

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