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Amid third wave, European Union running behind as vaccine rollout faces challenges

Much of continental Europe is suffering through a third and brutal wave of COVID-19. Making matters worse, the drive to vaccinate throughout the European Union is faltering badly. Coupled with recent concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine, the EU is running behind. Nick Schifrin has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Much of continental Europe is suffering through a third and brutal wave of COVID-19. Making matters worse, the drive to vaccinate throughout the European Union is faltering, and badly.

    Coupled with recent concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine, as Nick Schifrin reports, the E.U. is running behind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the banks of the Seine, the City of Lights feels a little bit dimmed. Paris is under a new, month-long lockdown. And along with this spring's bloom comes heavy gloom.

    France faces what European leaders call the crisis of the century. Hospitals are overwhelmed with a faster-spreading variant first discovered in Britain. And the lockdown will not prevent the city's fate, warns the head of a Paris intensive care unit.

  • Jean-Francois Timsit (through translator):

    Whatever we do, those who are infected today will need to go to hospital or in intensive care units in 10 days from now, and those in the ICU will stay for two weeks. In any case, this coming month will be hell.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A deepening circle of hell, in part because of a vaccine shortage. Across the European Union, only 5 percent are fully vaccinated. That relative deficit comes in part from the 27-country bloc centralizing procurement, but being too cautious in guaranteeing supply.

    In a Greek TV interview last night, French President Emmanuel Macron admitted Europe should have had more of what he called American ambition.

  • Pres. Emmanuel Macron (through translator):

    Without a doubt, in a way, we didn't shoot for the stars. I think that should be a lesson for us. We were maybe too rational.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that rationality also included generosity. The E.U. has distributed 71 million doses internally, but exported 43 million doses to more than 30 countries.

    That disparity has led to incredible political pressure on and from E.U. leaders. During today's European summit, leaders confirmed they would block exports to countries with better vaccination rates, but continue exports to the U.N. and developing world.

  • Nathalie Tocci:

    What has led up to this announcement is basically the fact that, in Europe, things are not going very well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nathalie Tocci is a special adviser to the E.U. leadership and directs the International Affairs Institute in Rome. She says vaccine failures threaten European solidarity and could increase European nationalism.

  • Nathalie Tocci:

    This is really, in a sense, not only about the pandemic, but it's really about the future of the European project. If the E.U. does not deliver, that nationalist, sovereign — sovereigntist sort of wave that had swept across Europe is going to be back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it's a different story in recently divorced Britain. Forty percent of the country has received at least one shot. It's imported 10 million doses from continental Europe and exported zero.

    Today, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited a day care, and showed off his painting skills.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    Needs work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But said the zero to 10 million ratio worked just fine.

  • Boris Johnson:

    One thing I'm firmly libertarian about is free trade, and I don't want to see blockades of vaccines or of medicines. I don't think that's the way forward, either for us or for any of our friends.

  • Suerie Moon:

    The big concern is that, once the E.U. starts to clamp down more and more on exports of vaccines, that this can undermine efforts to vaccinate the rest of the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Suerie Moon co-directs the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. She says AstraZeneca is the developing world's most important vaccine, and export reductions could hurt everyone's ability to overcome COVID.

  • Suerie Moon:

    Economically, it makes sense for richer countries to make sure poor ones get access to vaccines, in terms of political stability and political relationships. And in terms of trying to prevent the emergence of new mutations, new variants of concern, which can come back and undermine the pandemic control efforts in wealthier countries, it also makes sense to vaccinate everywhere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Also not helping, more vaccine skepticism. Overnight, AstraZeneca released new data of its U.S. trials, in response to government criticism it had cherry-picked preliminary data.

    In Denmark, authorities today extended a freeze on AstraZeneca for three weeks. That kind of news has led to more hesitancy, including back in France, where Brigitte Becker shows off the inhaler for her asthma, the toys for her grandkids, but refuses the vaccine that will let her see them.

  • Brigitte Becker (through translator):

    Considering everything that has been said about AstraZeneca, I don't want to take it anymore.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The irony is, countries distributing European vaccines are reducing COVID rates, helping prove vaccine safety and efficiency.

  • Suerie Moon:

    And so, in some ways, people should be even more willing to come forward and be immunized. But it's really unfortunate. The daily headlines, I think, are going to make it even harder.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Scientists insist AstraZeneca and all the vaccines are safe. It's now a question of how quickly the world can distribute them and avoid more lockdowns.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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