The coronavirus has had the whole world in its grip for several months now, having resulted in a global public health crisis. This crisis has been described by observers as the single biggest crisis faced by the world since the Second World War. No one was prepared for this pandemic and on a worldwide scale has claimed many victims. Europe has been struck in a very severe manner, with a death toll ranging around at least 201 000 casualties, with very high numbers of patients across the continent. Countries such as Spain, (northern) Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Belgium were hit hard by Covid-19.1
On a global scale, countries have introduced measures to contain the spread of the virus. From March onwards EU member states and other European states closed their borders and fought for the health of their citizens to the best of their capabilities. In many member states, huge sacrifices were made to avoid further harm to the health of their citizens and their public health systems, resulting in huge losses for the European economy.2 Many national health systems, after years or even decades of severe cuts, struggled to deal with the huge number of COVID-19 infections. Wearing facemasks in crowded places and limiting social interactions, including handshakes, became the new norm.
There is an agreement between politicians, virologists and epidemiologists that the virus will not just simply disappear, with most policy makers have put their fate in the creation of a vaccine against the virus. If a large portion of the population is vaccinated, the virus will not be able to spread any further. This would allow us to contain the situation, save lives and ultimately abolish all other sanitary measures that were put in place to fight against the coronavirus. Overall, this would allow for a return to our normal way of life.
The European Commission has presented her strategy for the development, mass production and distribution of a vaccine for the coronavirus.3 One element of the proposal is ensuring that sufficient vaccines are produced in the EU through prior purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers. The Commission will negotiate on behalf of all Member States with individual producers of promising candidate vaccines based on clear criteria. Such purchase agreements will allow Member States to purchase a defined quantity at a fixed price as soon as the vaccine is available. The European Emergency Support Instrument (ESI) will be used to pre-finance such agreements. By working together, all Member States will benefit from an enlarged scale and reduce their financial risk.
It is crucial, to ensure that we are prepared in case a COVID-19 vaccine is developed first by a country outside the EU that is not keen to share. Peter Liese MEP, the EPP Group’s Spokesman for Health, already stated that, for example, it would legally be possible to go for so-called forced or compulsory licencing.4 This makes it possible for Member States to use the recipe for the vaccine production without formal consent of the original patent holder. He also stated that the EU Member States should do this jointly. The European Commission, not individual countries, should oversee the process and coordination at EU level.
Yet, obtaining a vaccine and making it available will sadly not be enough. According to polls, 40% of the Dutch population are not keen on getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.5 Also in the US, a survey showed that 19% of 1,500 people surveyed were against a vaccine and 26% were unsure.6 These are frightening results, as a vaccine against COVID-19 would one be able to create ‘herd immunity’ if an estimated 70% of the population is vaccinated. Due to the vaccine being developed at a rapid pace, some fear that the vaccine will not be adequately tested for its safety and effectiveness. Fortunately, this is not true. The reason why the vaccine can be developed so quickly is because there has been an unprecedented investment of resources to have a vaccine against COVID-19 as soon as possible. Nevertheless, anti-vaxxers are taking advantage of this to spread fear and false news on a massive scale and thus, convince individuals not to get vaccinated.
A resolution on optimising vaccination strategies in EU Member States and curbing antivax campaigns has already been adopted at the YEPP Council meeting in Vienna on 13 April 2019. This resolution was adopted by the EPP at the EPP Congress in Zagreb in November 2019.Therefore, it is crucial for the European Commission and EU member states to make a joint effort in fighting anti-vaxxer propaganda. It is important that governments and health authorities tackle any form of mis- or disinformation and conspiracy theories that could undermine a future COVID-19 vaccine.