Last fall, it looked like the US couldn’t manage its COVID-19 response. Now, however, cases and deaths from the pandemic have plummeted, thanks in part to the end of the holiday travel spike but mostly because of the success of the mass vaccination effort from both the Trump and Biden administrations. The US is now debating how best to open up, not how to lock down again — as the UAE and Israel have done, and the UK is moving closer to planning.
Meanwhile, the EU has had to plan new lockdowns and deal with civil unrest. Italy has ordered a broad lockdown impacting most of the country:
A year after Italy became the first European country to impose a national lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the nation has fallen eerily quiet once again, with new restrictions imposed on Monday in an effort to stop a third wave of infections that is threatening to wash over Europe and overwhelm its halting mass inoculation program.
As he explained the measures on Friday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi warned that Italy was facing a “new wave of contagion,” driven by more infectious variants of the coronavirus.
Just as before, Italy was not alone.
“We have clear signs: The third wave in Germany has already begun,” Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases, said during a news conference on Friday. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary predicted that this week would be the most difficult since the start of the pandemic in terms of allocating hospital beds and breathing machines, as well as mobilizing nurses and doctors. Hospitalizations in France are at their highest levels since November, prompting the authorities to consider a third national lockdown.
Meanwhile, France may close Paris on the weekends:
Speaking Tuesday, Prime Minister Jean Castex declined to be specific but said worsening indicators were pushing the government to work on a potential lockdown during weekends. The government will discuss possible restrictions at a cabinet meeting Wednesday, Castex said.
“The time has come to envisage measures,” he said in an interview on BFM TV. “The situation in the Paris region is at a very precarious equilibrium.”
The French capital has been under a nightly curfew since mid-January with cafes, restaurants, bars and theaters closed in an effort to contain a resurgence in the infection rate.
But the infection rate has climbed all the same. More than 400 people out of every 100,000 people in the Paris region have tested positive over the past week, a threshold Castex has described as alarming. Intensive-care units in and around the capital are now nearly full, forcing the state to transfer patients to other hospitals around the country.
Quite the contrast to the US, Israel and the UAE. What happened? New York Times offers a fairly brief and clear-eyed view of the bad decisions made in Europe that led them into bureaucratic paralysis on vaccinations. And unfortunately, the EU is still compounding the bad decisions made early on (via Power Line).
“Why has Europe done so poorly?” David Leonhardt writes, and breaks it down to three reasons: vaccine skepticism, which is far higher in Europe than it is in the US, bureaucracy, and a penny-pinching approach to vaccine development. All of these have an impact, with perhaps the skepticism the least of the EU’s problems at the moment. They don’t have enough vaccines yet to make that the bottleneck. And even the vaccine they do have — AstraZeneca — they won’t use because of a handful of adverse cases involving blood clots.
Even that, though, is an example of the EU’s bureaucracy run amok:
Europe’s main drug regulator still says the benefits outweigh the risks. And Ann Taylor, AstraZeneca’s chief medical officer, has pointed out that the rate of clotting among vaccinated Europeans is lower than “would be expected among the general population.”
Dr. Muge Cevik, a virus expert at the University of St. Andrews, told me yesterday that it was always important to scrutinize vaccines. But, she added, “I would say the benefits of the A.Z. vaccine in preventing Covid, hospitalization and death outweigh the risks of side effects, especially in the middle of the pandemic.”
The real problem in the EU is the unwillingness of the bureaucrats to let pharmaceutical companies do what they do best. Instead of pushing relative pittances into blind purchases of massive amounts of doses, as the US did, to fund the R&D necessary to develop vaccines, the EU’s penny-pinchers attempted in essence to manage it themselves. They wanted to force the pharmas to lower their prices as a primary concern, rather than just get the vaccines first:
While the U.S. and other countries rushed to sign agreements with vaccine makers, the E.U. first tried to make sure all 27 of its member countries agreed on how to approach the negotiations. Europe chose “to prioritize process over speed and to put solidarity between E.U. countries ahead of giving individual governments more room to maneuver,” Jillian Deutsch and Sarah Wheaton write for Politico Europe.
The result was slower regulatory approval of the vaccines and delayed agreements to buy doses, forcing Europe to wait in line behind countries that moved faster.
Europe put a big emphasis on negotiating a low price for vaccine doses. Israeli officials, by contrast, were willing to pay a premium to receive doses quickly. Israel has paid around $25 per Pfizer dose, and the U.S. pays about $20 per dose. The E.U. pays from $15 to $19.
If the EU has 500 million people, and each needs two doses, that a savings of perhaps $6 billion to $10 billion. How much GDP is the EU losing each day of lockdowns? The US, Israel, and UAE understood that calculation right from the very start, and also understood that vaccines were the only way to get out of the lockdowns. The EU still sees lockdowns as viable strategies, and still are letting bureaucratic concerns get in the way of real cost-benefit analysis, this time with AstraZeneca.
There was plenty to criticize about the US’ early response, especially when it comes to experts opining without evidence and an ongoing lack of reliable and fast tests. The focus on vaccines and letting the market work for us rather than push against it made all the difference, however. We chose the most direct path out of the pandemic — although thanks to the new spike in transmissions in the EU, we might end up having to fight new variants in the future.
One last note, however: we should be thanking Donald Trump and his team for recognizing this as the most propitious path. However, Leonhardt never once mentions Trump, even though it was his administration that made these now-vindicated strategic choices in the first days of the pandemic.