Monday, March 22, 2021

Cutting through the noise on vaccines, some counter-intuitive truths (EN)

Without false modesty, this blog has been ahead of the curve on the AstraZeneca (AZ) covid vaccines affair. It exposed almost two months ago the arrogant lies of Pascal Soriot, AZ's CEO, in his attempts to bamboozle the EU into accepting that it should be treated as a second-class client, hinted at the likely foul play by the UK Government and at the toxic mix with Brexit politics. By March, statements made here - e.g. on the de facto vaccine export ban instituted by the UK or on the need to limit exports to ensure that AZ is serving fairly its EU contract - were part of the line taken by senior EU officials, such as European Council President Charles Michel, or European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

On the other hand, this blog didn't hesitate to call out the ineptitude of some national leaders' comments on the AZ vaccine and of some national regulators' decisions on its roll-out - a stupidity compounded by last week's temporary suspension of the vaccine in almost half of the Member States, based on mainly political considerations, in spite of the advice of EU's own regulator. And it also criticised the Commission's short-lived intention to invoke Art.16 of the Northern Ireland protocol as a very consequential political gaffe, which gave a pretext for the UK to try to wriggle out of its legal obligations.

As the vaccine-related escalation between the EU and the UK is now in full swing, the ongoing war of narratives creates a lot of noise that can easily distract from the fundamentals. It's therefore timely to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and scratch a bit the surface to bring up some rather counter-intuitive insights. 

I will try to argue that:

  • the AZ (and broader covid vaccines) scandal is more of a political stake than an actual public health issue; 
  • in the medium term the EU's problem is not the shortage of vaccines, but a very different one;
  • UK's apparent triumph on the vaccines is far from vindicating Brexit, rather the contrary; and 
  • the EU is very well positioned for success in the longer term, but only if it manages to overcome its existential challenges in the short term.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Can vaccination prevent new lockdowns in Europe? (EN)

Back in January, in the second part of this post, I anticipated that EU countries were facing an imminent, devastating third wave of the pandemic over the coming months, driven by the more contagious mutations of the virus. I also wrote that the vaccines roll-out, even if proceeding according to plan (which it hasn't, mainly due to AstraZeneca's failure to supply on its contract with the EU), would not be able to help flatten the curve - they were simply too little, too late for this wave.

In the meantime, much of the talk in Europe has been about gradually lifting restrictions introduced at the beginning of winter. 

But one and a half month later, as more and more countries see again their infections and deaths going up again (below figure from ECDC) and their hospitals under strain, the tone is changing and re-confinement is back on the table across Europe.

The lingering question is: would a faster vaccination have helped significantly mitigate this new wave of the pandemic, so as to avoid renewed lockdowns? 

It's a legitimate question, especially as one compares with the UK, which, having achieved a much higher vaccination rate than continental Europe, is seeing its case count fall and is preparing to emerge from lockdown.

And linked to this, what is the level of vaccination where one can hope to see, if not 'herd immunity' (which we know requires around 70% of people to be immune), at least a meaningful impact on the virus propagation, a noticeable 'flattening of the curve' without the need for tough lockdown-type restrictions?

By looking at the available evidence from different countries with different levels of vaccination and at different points in the pandemic wave, the answer to the first question is, sadly, that even a flawless vaccination rollout wouldn't have avoided the need for fresh lockdowns in Europe.

The answer to the second question is more complicated and depends on a number of other factors (e.g. how many people in a given country already have some immunity after having been infected with covid in the earlier waves), but it points to a level of vaccination that EU countries are very unlikely to reach before summer. So if vaccination can help Europe re-open safely and broadly, this might only be the case from next autumn.