Chasing after hope

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

When the first days of hope appeared that we would get out from under the heavy cloud of the Covid-19 pandemic with the help of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, (a native of Thessaloniki, the quintessential successful Greek on the global business stage) became something of a cult figure. Now, that Pfizer vaccine deliveries are losing speed in Europe, less people vaunt themselves of being close acquaintances of Albert Bourla; there is even a growing number of those who recall how prompt Bourla has been to unload Pfizer stock in the very first glowing days of the m-RNA -based BNT 162b2 formula.

Chancellor Angela Merkel – ever the thoughtful, down-to-earth politician – went to great lengths to caution her own people (the supposedly cool-headed Germans) against heaping recriminations over BioNTech people for the delays in delivering the vaccine. Meanwhile, Governments of EU countries ranging from Italy to Poland think of initiating legal action against Pfizer for the delays in vaccine deliveries; in the European Parliament, the European Commission negotiators of the supply contracts  entered into by the EU risk having an unpleasant day in hearings.

Things started differently for the Astra Zeneca/Oxford vaccine: here, the European Medicines Agency delays in certifying the chimp adenovirus-based A2D 1222, were the first to draw fire. EU leaders like Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Austrian Sebastian Kurz, but also E.C. President Ursula von der Leyen were politely critical of such delays – to the point that the EMA mulled over a possible public communication/response. Here, too, public attention shifted to news that deliveries of this vaccine would start being distributed at a significantly lower pace in Europe…

The fact is that the deployment of vaccines is extremely unequal around the world: Europeans used to gloat over their success in facing Covid-19 in earlier stages of the. pandemic, but are now watching the likes of Israel (where close to 40% of the population has received the jab) or even the U.S. surpassing them in vaccinations. As of January 22, Israel had 18.2 doses per 1000 people administered on a daily basis; the UK managed 4.6 doses/day; the US had 2.9 doses/day Spain and France were at 1.2 doses/day; Greece and Germany along with Turkey are at 0.9 doses/day, Italy at 0.5 doses/day .

Once more Angela Merkel captured the attention of a large audience when suggesting that for a country like Germany to reach the goal of general population getting the shot ,one would have to wait until mid-September.

Still more disquieting is the discourse about new variants of Covid-19. The British/South UK variant (B.1.1.7) spreads around Europe, while South African (1.351) and Brazilian (P.1.) strains have also started to spread. While initial reports that the British variant was more dangerous were shooed aside with the assertion that the new strains of the virus might be more easily transmissible but no more lethal, now UK P.M. Boris Johnson got on record saying “there is some evidence the new variant may be associated with a higher degree of mortality”. The remaining hope is that existing vaccines will still prove useful to fight such new variants; meanwhile, new restrictions to travel are discussed on this very basis.

Which brings us to the proposal for some sort of “health pass” – or to be more accurate of (digital, in QRC form) vaccination certificates – to be introduced, in a concerted way, at EU-wide level. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis tabled such a proposal, so that border-crossing procedures be simplified. This debate goes back quite a long way, to Israel’s “green passport” or Estonia’s digital vaccine certificate (the latter had caught the attention of WHO), but if introduced to the EU – a union of states based i.a. on free movement of people – such a system would be heavy in consequences.

Mitsotakis’ own proposal (main advantages: no quarantine for certificate-holders, no need for testing when crossing borders) was discussed last week at an informal EU Summit, with Commission President von der Leyen being positive to the idea and – more importantly – with strong IATA support. Still, EU heavyweights such as Germany or France were quite reluctant: personal data concerns were the first to be raised, but the equal-treatment dimension was more important. The official statement of Ursula vdL was that the use of such a certificate should be “very carefully considered”, following “a more thorough debate when the time is right”. The position of Council President Charles Michel was: “We are convinced borders should remain open […] Restrictions on non-essential travel must be considered”. Not a good portent for the tourist trade!

Of course, the real snag for any such proposal is that “consensus among Member States” would be needed. So, chasing after hope may be a natural option so as to get out from Covid-19 despondency; but it is far less than sufficient.