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.
I have looked at different countries that have a higher vaccination rate than the EU, comparing their historic data on covid cases (number of new cases confirmed through positive tests - using the 7-day rolling average for the trend) with the evolution of their vaccination rates (as the cumulative number of vaccine doses administered per 100 inhabitants). In particular, I focused on this simple fact: what was the vaccination rate when the number of new cases peaked before starting its descent?
As an example, see below the corresponding charts for Israel. It shows that the number of new cases in the latest wave of the pandemic peaked in Israel around 17 January, and on that date the country had a vaccination rate of 29.62.
- The number of new cases peaked in the United Arab Emirates on 30 January, when they had a vaccination rate of 31.49.
- In the US, new cases peaked on 8 January, when the vaccination rate was only 2.00 (negligible!).
- In the UK, the vaccination rate at the peak of new cases (9 January) was around 3.9 (again very small).
- Chile, on the other hand, is as we speak (data from 17 March) still on the upward slope of the 3rd wave of the pandemic, in other words new cases still haven't peaked, although it has a vaccination rate of 40.70!
- Similarly, Serbia still sees increasing number of cases while it has administered 30.53 vaccine doses per hundred inhabitants.
- Hungary appears to have peaked just recently (15 March) in terms of new cases, with a vaccination rate of 18.08 - I would however treat the data around 15 March with some caution, since the date coincides with the country's National Day.
The coming wave will be the deadliest so far in Europe, with or without the vaccine.But this happening against the background of a bungled vaccine roll-out due to supply shortages, while across the Channel the UK is emerging from the third wave and immunizes its citizens at a much faster clip, will be politically explosive. A full vindication of Brexit would be the cherry on the pie. The collapse of the EU itself cannot be ruled out. The joint action on vaccines by the 27 member states, hailed as a big triumph for European solidarity only one month ago, could become its undoing in the coming few weeks.
Hence, for the EU getting its vaccine roll-out back on track as fast as possible is an existential stake.