Sometimes it can be helpful in politics to play poker – we know that in Brussels. In December alone, the breakaway member states Poland and Hungary were first bluffed out in the budget negotiations and then Great Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson was thrown out in the struggle for a post-Brexit agreement. The most important means in such negotiations is the tension-inducing hesitation until the last minute. In the end, everything somehow ends well. Usually.
When it comes to the corona vaccine, the EU would have let poker be better. In the summer, when the infection numbers were comparatively low and it was a matter of ordering enough Covid-19 vaccine for the time when the pandemic got worse again, the 27 member states made the wise decision to order together for everyone instead of sending every country into individual combat. What happened after that was fatal: The EU gambled away in negotiations with the vaccine manufacturers. A mistake that will not only cost many lives, but also a great deal of money, now this winter, at the height of the pandemic. And that, although the EU actually wanted to save money with its poker – at least that is how you have to interpret what you know so far.
Were Biontech and Moderna too expensive for the EU?
First the facts: The EU has ordered almost two billion doses of vaccine from six manufacturers since the summer. In theory, that would be more than enough – even if every EU citizen were given two doses of vaccine, as is the case with most vaccines. For one thing, not all vaccines are ready for approval. The vaccine of the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, for example, from which the EU has ordered 300 million doses, will not be ready until the end of 2021 at the earliest due to various setbacks. Much too late to help in the current dramatic situation with thousands of Covid deaths across Europe every day.
On the other hand, the EU was particularly hesitant about those two vaccines that can now be used: The one drug for which the German company Biontech and the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer got together was approved on December 21. The second from the US company Moderna is expected to receive approval from the European Medicines Agency in the next few days.
However, the EU ordered both vaccines very late – the contracts with Biontech / Pfizer and Moderna were only signed in November, when the other major orders to the pharmaceutical companies Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson and Astra-Zeneca were long gone. And in rather small quantities: a total of 300 million cans at Biontech and 160 million cans at Moderna. For the entire EU. By way of comparison: the USA, with its only 330 million inhabitants, had already secured 600 million cans from Biontech and 500 million from Moderna in July. After all, both companies presented promising study results early on.
The pandemic is underestimated
How can it be that the EU nevertheless ordered so little and so late? Biontech founder Uğur Şahin recently expressed surprise in a SPIEGEL conversation about the hesitant attitude of Europeans. “Apparently the impression prevailed: We’ll get enough, it won’t be so bad, and we have it under control,” suspects Şahin.
In fact, it seems as if the European politicians involved underestimated the force with which the pandemic would come back in autumn and winter – and how urgently an effective vaccine would then be needed. So they obviously skimpy on spending and preferred not to order so much of the expensive vaccines.
Because the price of the vaccines differs enormously. There are no official figures, but a Belgian State Secretary recently gave a brief insight on Twitter: According to this, a dose of vaccine from Moderna costs the equivalent of around 15 euros, that from Biontech / Pfizer 12 euros, and that from Astra-Zeneca only 1.78 euros. As a result, the EU bought 400 million cans from Astra-Zeneca in the summer. A bargain. But the cheap vaccine has not yet been approved in the EU – and, according to recent studies, probably also significantly less effective than the more expensive agents from Biontech and Moderna.
So the EU not only hesitated too long, it also saved at the wrong end. Perhaps out of fear of having ordered millions of doses of superfluous vaccine, they preferred to order a little less. “We agreed in the EU that we shouldn’t put everything on one card,” the EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides now defends. But it would have been right to bet everything on all cards. Or at least many.
The costs would have been downright ridiculous compared to the economic damage caused by the corona crisis. Once very generously assumed that the EU had ordered 900 million cans of Biontech, Moderna and Astra-Zeneca – enough to vaccinate every citizen of the Union twice with every vaccine: According to the prices of the Belgian State Secretary, that would have cost around 26 billion euros in total – for the entire EU. For comparison: the federal government pays more than 30 billion euros in November and December aid for compulsorily closed businesses in Germany. And according to an estimate by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), the German economy alone loses around 3.5 billion euros with every week shutdown. The very large all-inclusive bulk order is still clearly worthwhile if the other three manufacturers had also ordered 900 million cans for a further 22 billion euros.
Now defenders of the EU vaccine policy argue that it makes no difference how much you have ordered: the manufacturers simply cannot produce more than they are currently doing. But this is only half the truth. Of course there are production bottlenecks. But with millions of additional orders in their pockets, the pharmaceutical companies could have planned differently since the summer – and had an incentive to expand their capacities even further.
It also depends on the order of the orders. Whoever orders first, will be delivered faster. This is currently evident not only from the example of the USA, but also from Israel: the country with just nine million inhabitants is to receive four to five million doses of the Biontech vaccine by the end of January. According to media reports, the Israeli government should also pay a higher price per can.
In the meantime, Germany and the EU have little choice but to hope that Biontech and Pfizer will be able to expand their production capacities even more than planned and that a little more vaccine will arrive earlier. Above all, however, that Astra-Zeneca’s inexpensive vaccine will soon be approved and that it may work well enough to stop the pandemic.
That’s a little bit for the third strongest economic power in the world.