Here’s another date for your diary. July 14. By then, there will be Covid immunity in the European Union. Who says so? None other than the European commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton.
“Today, we clearly have the capacity to deliver 300 to 350 million doses by the end of June. Therefore, by July 14 we have the possibility of achieving immunity on the continent.”
This was what Breton said on the French TF1 TV channel the other day. He was responding to criticisms of the slowness of the European Commission’s vaccination programme and therefore also a question as to why doses of the Russian Sputnik V are not being acquired.
“We have absolutely no need for Sputnik V,” he stressed. He might have added that the European Medicines Agency has yet to give its approval for the Russian vaccine, although the agency has started a rolling review.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which backed the development of Sputnik, fired off various tweets in response to what Breton had to say. He was “clearly biased”. “If this is an official position of the EU, please inform us that there is no reason to pursue EMA approval because of your political biases. We will continue to save lives in other countries.”
President Putin weighed in, describing remarks coming from Europe questioning the need for the Russian vaccine as “strange”. “We are not imposing anything on anyone. Whose interests are such people protecting - pharmaceutical companies or citizens of European countries?”
July 14 isn’t any old date. The Storming of the Bastille was on that day in 1789. It is France’s national day and therefore roughly a couple of weeks before the traditional August rush from Paris for the summer holidays.
The Parisians will have been immunised, the French will have been immunised, the rest of Europe will have been immunised. “Liberty, equality, fraternity.”
Where Russia is concerned, there is evidently very little fraternity of a vaccine nature being displayed. The European Union can get on just fine without it, and mid-July will see the EU freed thanks to the equality of the centralised vaccine purchasing and distribution system. But not everyone is sticking to this centralisation or wants to any longer.
Hungary has broken ranks. In Spain, there are regional leaders like Ximo Puig in Valencia wondering why Spain can’t get hold of Sputnik. Puig is a PSOE president, just like Francina Armengol, and he is calling for something that Armengol would seemingly never dare to.
There are, it would appear, certain voices within the Spanish government who are daring to speak of the impossibility of getting 70% of the population vaccinated by some time in the summer - perhaps by Bastille Day, such has been the vagueness.
These same voices are apparently suggesting that the 70% target won’t be met until October. If so, the season can be as good as kissed goodbye.
Vaccination has become the only game in town. For all that there remain obvious questions, it is now being treated as a panacea for solving not just a disease but also the woes of tourism and therefore for rescuing the season.
Yet the politics of vaccination intrude. AstraZeneca has offered an example, Sputnik another. A country not in the EU, Serbia, has been moving at a far greater pace than the rest of Europe with its programme because its policy is basically one of acquiring whatever it can. Pfizer, Sputnik; Serbia doesn’t care so long as there are doses for arms.
But for the Serbs, perhaps, and also for the Hungarians, a Russian vaccine is easier to swallow or to be jabbed with. Breton may be right, but not for the reason he has given.
One wonders what the general public reaction would be to a Russian vaccine? From my point of view, I’m like the Serbs, I couldn’t care less where it comes from, but a vaccine xenophobia may well exist. In which case, one might ask - if Sputnik were the only vaccine available, would there be a different attitude?
The Russians and the Americans have made the EU aware that they are still the superpowers.
The response to the Covid crisis was to go onto something like a war footing in bringing the resources of state to bear in finding and developing a vaccine.
A “New York Times” article has examined the differences in approach, and it points out that Washington (and it was similar in Moscow) “poured billions into pharmaceuticals”.
The EU, by contrast, sat on its hands and allowed the free market to run its course. The EU has been a customer. The American and Russian governments have been partners; a key difference. This isn’t the sole reason for the slowness of the EU’s programme, but it is a strong one.
M. Breton has targeted Bastille Day. Maybe he will be proven to be correct. But right now, is anyone in Spain or Europe convinced?