Chess game on vaccines

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The general meltdown over AstraZeneca – which exploded in the midst of the decisive vaccination campaign – dominated this political week. Much has been said and written about the decision of the main European governments to suspend the administration of the vaccine produced by the Anglo-Swedish company, dealing with the issue almost exclusively from a scientific, bureaucratic or contractual point of view.

Instead, it is safe to assume that a real strategic and power battle is underway on AstraZeneca. The decision was actually made by Germany, forcing all the other European governments to comply in a chain, in the awareness of not being able to bear the consequent reaction of local public opinions in the face of the leap forward of the most influential country on the continent. In fact, the German government led the campaign to discredit the British vaccine.

Berlin decided in complete autonomy for the fourth time since the beginning of the pandemic, each time triggering a domino effect in the EU. It had happened with border closures, with the limitations on the export of sanitary materials, with the semi-lockdowns in Autumn and now it is repeated with AstraZeneca. This confirms the now widespread tendency to bypass European institutions during the emergencies or to use them instrumentally according to national needs. This is a fact that our country would do well to reflect on.

Furthermore, together with France, Italy and Spain, Germany is one of the European countries given as now close to an agreement with the Russians to produce Sputnik V internally. Any failures of AstraZeneca would have made this project much more probable and attractive. Of course, the Euro-Westerners have no intention of throwing themselves into the arms of Russia at the same moment in which Biden, the Trump season ended, accuses Putin of being a murderer to regroup the ranks of the West against a common enemy and to discourage them from obtaining (also) the Russian vaccine.

In this waltz of the powers it is safe to believe that the real goal of Europeans is quite simply to exert the few pressures they are capable of to obtain more vaccines in a crucial phase of the vaccination campaign. Prior to this week’s blockade, AstraZeneca itself was already in the dock for delivery delays. Despite their formidable scientific, technological and manufacturing capabilities, European countries do not control the distribution nor the production chain in which they participate. With very limited possibilities to impose on powerful pharmaceutical companies. The blockade on the export of Anglo-Swedish vaccines imposed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi at the beginning of the month is emblematic.

The case of our main partners and competitors is different. After the nightmare scenario experienced at the end of 2020, the United States is now in clear advantage in terms of production and inoculation as it can draw on a very long international supply chain. The Russian and Chinese rivals have the tools to acquire indigenous patents but lack the ability to produce them on a massive scale. This slows down their domestic vaccination campaigns and forces them to use vaccines as a tool of diplomacy. Even towards us.

Thus, while the European chancelleries cannot attack Washington for its lack of aid on the vaccine front (Biden announced that the Old Continent will receive US surplus doses not before the summer, when the bulk of Americans will be vaccinated), the United Kingdom ends in the crosshairs – all the more so after Brexit left a very deep scar in relations between the two sides of the Channel.

London has a proprietary vaccine (Oxford’s) and a company to produce it (AstraZeneca, precisely), but it suffers an important vulnerability such as the need to rely on an international supply chain (the Anglo-Swedish company has plants in India, Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands). It is also of a different geopolitical size than the United States, a condition that exposes London to reprisals, threats and blackmail from the European countries led by Germany. As promptly happened in the last week.